Saturday, August 25, 2018

an internet reaction to a Madonna VMA tribute to Aretha Franklin that seemed less about Franklin than about the Material Girl

Having never been a fan of the Material Girl I can't say I've missed her low profile in pop cultural terms ... although as these things go Madonna seems more substantial than any number of other pop stars from the last fifteen years.

But my sympathies for women who were career entertainers who got started in the 1980s veers far closer to Annie Lennox than Madonna.  Madonna's songs are well-crafted but not so well-crafted that I find her weak voice persuasive ... but then I have generally hated John Lennon's voice and his songwriting chops just barely inspire me to put up with his vocals in a way that is, honestly, comparable to Madonna.  These are both cases of honestly fairly shrewd songwriters with tepid voices.  But then whether it's Madonna or John Lennon or Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen we've got a lesson in popular songwriting, you can have a weak or anemic voice but if you write well-crafted songs people can forgive the voice part.  Very few singers in the industry can be a Whitney who, despite her phenomenal pipes could pick some too-sugary ballads and that might go triple for Carey on the sugary songs ...

But ... Madonna got in the news cycle for apparently transforming what could have been an ode to the great Aretha Franklin into a "my struggle" narrative.  Yes, that terrible joke is on purpose ... since it would seem fitting for one of the great trolls of pop music to be the butt of a trolling joke ... 
Because it would have been a scandal if Madonna sang. And it sounded like Madonna herself knew that. In the speech she gave instead, she foregrounded the late ’70s and early ’80s period when her desire to be an entertainer ran up against obstacles such as the fact that she didn’t have the octave range that other singers had. Today, the notion that she’s a limited vocalist is one of the great clich├ęs surrounding Madonna’s career, and she hasn’t shied away from it. “I know I’m not the best singer and I know I’m not the best dancer, but I’m not interested in that,” she once said. “I’m interested in pushing people’s buttons, in being provocative and in being political.”
Even the current president can push people's buttons by pushing buttons.  If that was Madonna's lifetime goal then maybe that set the bar low.  As for being provocative ... well, sure, but in an era in which South Park has wrapped up its twenty-first season whether or not Madonna's idea of provocative counts for much in 2018 seems moot ... as in I can't remember the last time she was actually in the news prior to this Aretha Franklin moment.

It does seem Madonna has gotten a pass on allegations of cultural appropriation.  Not that the allegations may make a difference to her at this late stage in her career (by the time you're sixty in pop music you've reached institutional status if anyone even still remembers who you are). 

Franklin, by contrast, did pride herself on being the best singer. Of the relatively few controversies she kicked up over the course of her life, many came from her defending her title as Queen of Soul on the merits of her vocal ability. And, of course, she was more than just a singer: She was an all-around cultural, political, and religious leader of lasting and deep influence. Paying adequate tribute to her is going to be difficult for anyone, and it’s certainly conceivable that the Queen of Pop—someone without Franklin’s singing power but with plenty of ingenuity and significance—might have some role to play in the mourning. But as the first big televised memorial? After Madonna famously and clumsily took a crack at honoring Prince, another vocally distinctive black icon? Just … Couldn’t we find someone else?
Probably. But the truth is that an event like the VMAs is one ruled by expediencies. Perhaps the producers looked down the list of people they’d already booked, remembered that Madonna’s the Queen of Pop, and figured they could ask her to do something on behalf of the Queen of Soul. And if she wasn’t going to sing, what could she do? Speak.
Her speech could have been fine, or even excellent. But instead the “tribute” mythologized Madonna way more than it did Franklin. The story she told centered around her own audition, decades ago, to sing backup for the French artist Patrick Hernandez. At the time, Madonna was living in Detroit—the city Franklin loved most—where she was poor, scared, and repeatedly mistaken for a prostitute, she said. She met up with the talent scouts, but hadn’t prepared a song to sing, and in a panic chose a personal favorite, Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Weeks later, the scouts called her and told her she wasn’t right for their gig, but that they had another one for her. That call led to a few months in Paris working with the producer Giorgio Moroder, after which she came back because she “wanted to write [her] own songs and be a musician, not a puppet.”
The point of the anecdote was that Madonna loved Franklin’s songs and drew upon them in a time of need. The take-home message: “None of this would’ve happened, could’ve happened without our lady of soul. She led me to where I am today and I know she influenced so many people in this house tonight, in this room tonight, and I want to thank you Aretha for empowering all of us, R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Long live the queen!” As bottom lines go, it’s a heartfelt and true one—but it had been preceded by a lengthy and overly detailed story about a weird time when Madonna was trying and failing to become famous.
In the last few years I've read more than a few rants against the pernicious influence of what's known as neoliberalism, the idea that what is good for the individual and for society can be mediated in terms of the market and deregulated market forces.  Very often when this applies to musicology one of the arguments can be that popular song is as significant or more significant for many people today than classical music or jazz.  That is basically true if we go by market share.  Classical music is so small a percentage as to have hardly more than a drop's worth of presence in a glass of water.  It may be even more true to say that jazz is marginal.  Does that make these musical traditions unimportant?  No.

But the Madonna moment with Franklin may shed some potential light (as well as heat) on what neoliberalism can look like at a practical level in purely intra-pop terms.  It's been reported that Michael Jackson's Thriller is no longer consider the top-charting album of all time.

Now as for The Eagles ... I'm with The Dude about them. When I hear songs by The Eagles I hate them so much that they convince me (with help from James Taylor and Jackson Browne) that second wave feminism was a necessary thing!  But let's get back to neoliberalism and popular music vs. popular music.  If the power of the market to speak determines greatness then The Beatles are the greatest and ... let's see where Madonna and Aretha Franklin rank in terms of sales.

If we go by Billboard the top-selling artists of "all time" are in order:
1. The Beatles
2. Madonna
3. Elton John
4. Elvis Presley
5. Mariah Carey
6. Stevie Wonder
7. Janet Jackson
8. Michael Jackson
9. Whitney Houston
10. Rihanna
11. The Rolling Stones
12. Paul McCartney
13. Bee Gees
14. Usher
15. Chicago
16. The Supremes
17. Prince
18. Hall & Oates
19. Rod Stewart
22. Aretha Franklin
23. Marvin Gaye
24. Taylor Swift
25. Katy Perry
26. Phil Collins
27. Billy Joel
57. Ray Charles

77. James Brown


If Madonna has sold more albums than Franklin so ... it might be harsh to put it this way... 

couldn't it be said in the era that some say is the era of neoliberalism or the era of surveillance capitalism that it's Madonna who is "greater" than Aretha Franklin by the measure of the market?  Sure, pioneers have important roles to play but in the sense that stories of trend setting and trailblazing and innovation pave the way for newer and greater things can it be argued that Aretha Franklin paved the way for the Madonna who is greater than Aretha Franklin?  Did Beethoven role over so The Beatles could be the top sellers by (among other things) ... stealing riffs from Chuck Berry? 

In terms of sales ranking Janet outranks her brother Michael and Prince.  By a "rockist" measurement Michael Jackson and Prince probably rank above Janet Jackson but not in terms of sales.  This introduces a range of questions that poptimists could explore.  If Billy Joel has moved more units than Ray Charles is Billy Joel "greater" as a popular selling artist?  Yeah.  Is Billy Joel greater than Ray Charles or James Brown because he sold more records?  I ... have a lot of doubts about that. 

I'm not sure that "Borderline" or "We Didn't Start The Fire" are better songs than "Superbad" or "What'd I Say?"

But if sales are the measure then, well, Justin Bieber has obviously beaten Bruce Springsteen in terms of artistic success. 

Somehow something seems wrong about this blunt metric.  It doesn't seem to be the case that Madonna is greater than Aretha Franklin or that Aretha Franklin's legacy is such that it is "just" a ramp upon which Madonna drove her way to being the top selling female recording artist of all time. 

Not that it's a given that neoliberalism is "true" or that there can't be accommodations to other variables in a canon because, make no mistake, canons exist.  What I find dubious about claims that we should have a post-canon world is that canons keep getting made.  I'm not so sure that a poptimist canon in which Mariah Carey outranks Aretha Franklin or Justin Bieber outranks James Brown is necessarily where even self-professed poptimists want to take the argument, let alone a metrics-based case that Janet Jackson is greater than Michael Jackson by dint of sales figures. 

Because if we look at the absolute top of the Billboard listings it's looking pretty white in the top four slots.  Thriller may still really be the top charting album of all time and if so that's fine by me.  It's aged pretty well.  I felt his musical output began to steadily (though slowly, mind you) drop off as his life went on.  He was never less than a solid songwriter even if I thought "Speed Demon" was meh.  But I suppose my point is made, that even if we try to measure success in the arts by something besides German idealism and Romantic measures of greatness it seems that even within the pantheon of pop music white people are still at the top of the heap. 

Which is why I'm not sure the poptimist case is necessarily better than the rockist case, and why I'm not so sure a pop-centric approach to the arts is necessarily "better".  Mahalia Jackson and Judy Mowatt aren't even in the top 100 selling artists but I admire both of their musical legacies. 

No comments: