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Never Forget Who You Are
Madonna: Ray of Light
I doubt it has the same box-office potential as the run of asteroid-impact movies, but the small parallel trend of movies about governesses transcending their stations does at least offer a narrative alternative for people who don't think famous landmarks exploding (apparently all major public buildings house large stockpiles of nitroglycerin) qualifies, inherently, as engaging storytelling. The Governess and Firelight are the two obvious examples, but if you expand the category to admit Ever After (different occupation, same struggle), Dangerous Beauty (about the other of the two occupations that used to be open to intelligent women) and Angels & Insects (in which both characters are essentially governesses), you get an intriguing set of recent period pieces about, more or less, women fighting for the right to define the parameters by which their success will be judged. In the cases of Ever After and Dangerous Beauty, which seem to have been the least-well-received of the five, I was able to enjoy them through a sort of sleight of mind, imagining how they would have thrilled me if I'd encountered them when I was young enough for the issues to still be novel. The courtroom climax of Dangerous Beauty, for example, employs a well-worn trope that most adult viewers, including anybody old enough to have seen In & Out, will have come across before, but I bet the first time you saw it, you were moved. Ever After's moral is no more ground-breaking, but rewriting Cinderella seems like a particularly noble endeavor to me, rewiring a fundamentally inane and regressive fairy tale so that the same glowing romantic triumph follows from qualities much more worth cultivating than foot size, and ditching the magic in favor of a curmudgeonly Leonardo Da Vinci is, I think, a stroke of genius, and one that says as much about our value system, or perhaps the one we wish we lived by, as a month of Schindler's Lists.
The other three all factor in additional complexities. Angels & Insects takes its science most seriously, although it also suffers, to me, from one of the same central weaknesses as The English Patient, namely that if you lock up an obsessively studious male with Kristin Scott Thomas for long enough, it is more inevitable than grandly tragic that he will eventually fall in love with her. The Governess, despite its odd subtext of casual social anti-Semitism, is the most insular of the set, and thus the one in whose romance, blatantly an affair of convenience in both directions, I feel the least investment. But then, I didn't walk out of Firelight thinking I'd been profoundly moved, either. A day or two went by before I noticed that I was picking up and putting down pieces of paper, whenever I had the chance, with an exaggerated precision, like dealing the Tarot cards that tell the fortune of the world, that I was attempting to bend conversations at work so that I could get through them with only violently dispassionate "Yes"es and "No"s, dripping with unspoken implications, that I was actually still feeling residual sympathy for even the peripheral characters displaced along the path to the film's resolution. Only belatedly did it occur to me that of these five films, Firelight is the only one in which the man meets the woman on her terms. In Ever After and Dangerous Beauty the women beat the men at male games, and in The Governess and Angels & Insects they prove their worth by assisting with the men's studies; only in Firelight is the woman apparently self-contained, and able to alter the man's patterns, instead of inhabiting them. It's also the only one of these films with anything resembling a healthy mother-daughter relationship; it's probably a sign that I'm getting older that this seems to me like such an important observation in its favor.
And while all these stories are set, nominally, many years ago, the fact that people still feel it necessary to tell them demonstrates that in our long quest to dismantle gender barriers, our progress in mythologies lags behind our progress in legislation. Without role models to go with them, the legal protections against discrimination are moot. And who are, still, the most prominent women's role-models in this culture? Models, mostly, or variants, actresses better known for their contours than their abilities, musicians who are excellent at costume changes but don't play instruments, mannequins who can read from a tele-prompter without smearing lipstick on their teeth. But slowly, things are changing. I went to Boston Renegades games, this summer, our team in the W1 League, currently the highest level of women's soccer in this country, and it made me nearly cry, at the end of every game, to see hundreds of young girls pour through the railings of the old WPA stadium the Renegades play in, swarming onto the field to get autographs from the players. Mia Hamm would be one thing, but these women were not media figures, by any stretch of the imagination, they were just soccer players, some of them barely out of college, some of them with children of their own. I'm not sure what moved me more, the girls' spontaneous and unselfconscious adoration of women who actually know how to do something, the looks in the players faces every time the wave crashed out of the stands toward them, or the looks in the eyes of the parents, of both the autograph seekers and the autograph givers, watching a spectacle that has no precedent in their generation. It was a major step, I think, when Mattel agreed to make a Women's World Cup Barbie; it would be a larger step if they'd make her feet the right shape for soccer shoes, and put a button in her back to activate Power Kick Action, like the karate chops my old Big Jim thrived on.
Music's track record, as a source for role models, is also improving, but still wildly uneven. For every Melissa Etheridge or Tori Amos, whose music is based squarely on their own talents and passions, I fear that there are still twice as many women of the old variety, Mariah Carey or Celine Dion or Janet Jackson or Whitney Houston, performers whose role in the formulation of their music, as opposed to their image, often seems, at best, peripheral. Madonna, of course, is the archetype of a weird role model. On one hand, "Express yourself" is a positive credo, and she has her own record label, and she's built, by now, respectable careers in both music and film. On the other hand, for all her exhortations to express yourself, she has rarely taken advantage of her position to express anything in particular. She's whirled through an exhausting array of meticulously assembled characters, each with drastically different visual styles, and yet the same disconcerting lack of anything to say. What, other than "I want to be famous", could "I want to grow up to be like Madonna" be construed to mean? And as the Spice Girls begin, chirpily, to usurp portions of her domain, it seems to me like her image schizophrenia is finally having its unavoidable repercussions. She has taken on so many guises, proved so often that every image is discardable, that it's difficult to think why we should care about the current one, knowing that it, too, is merely a phase. We only tolerate radical direction-changes, I think, when we believe that this one is the real one, truer than the discarded self, and Madonna's parade of images seems uniformly artificial. It's hard to know, after all this time, if there even is a "real" Madonna, hidden under whatever it's currently hiding under.
My Madonna collection used to consist entirely of the twelve-inch single of "Papa Don't Preach" (a rare topical exception), which I bought during college in order to use it on dance tapes (although, in retrospect, it's really too slow to be a very good dance song), but a couple weeks ago I finally realized that this marvelous, spacey, techno rave I kept hearing snippets of, with someone singing a pretty, soaring chorus over whizzing synthesizers and an unhurried drum-machine thump, was actually "Ray of Light", the title track of her new album. Probably if I'd known it was her, before hearing it, I'd have convinced myself I hated it, but it slipped through my defenses, so buying the album seemed like the only honorable response. And, in fact, I'm finding it quite pleasant. In public, at the moment, Madonna is intently refining a frankly scary image that combines the head of a macramé leopard with the build of a zombie on steroids, but for the purposes of this album she both looks and sounds essentially normal. She is, whatever her other flaws or virtues, a competent singer, especially with a good producer on hand, and she can, when she decides to, avoid derailing the music with excessive quirkiness, genre affectations or obtrusive lyrical conceits. Perhaps the worst that can be said about her performances here is that I'm probably not the only one to hear pieces of them and not know from the sound that it was Madonna singing.
Which leads me to the conclusion, and this may well be unfair, that this is only barely Madonna's record. She co-produced and co-wrote all thirteen songs, but twelve of them were also co-produced, and six of them co-written, by ambient titan William Orbit, and while my William Orbit collection is not much bigger than my Madonna collection (a handful of compilation tracks, and the first Strange Cargo album, which I bought yesterday and have listened to once), his reputation is based on making music, not appearances, and it's an easy conclusion to draw that most of this music, and even more of the mood, is his. However the credit should be apportioned, though, this is a confident and reassuringly restrained studio record, as representative as anything of the 1998 state of the art. "Drowned World/Substitute for Love", the opener, with watery bells, a gruff voice-over, Madonna's quiet, delicate vocal, brittle drums, sprinkles of dreamlike piano and various guitar textures, sounds like it began life hoping to get on the Titanic soundtrack, but then got carried away with its own possibilities. The bouncy "Swim" combines bloopy keyboard noises, a defiantly pre-techno drum loop and a clipped vocal with a thin, scratchy guitar part, like filigree around the wheel wells of an armored car. "Candy Perfume Girl" swells from muted, vaguely Gary Numan-ish verses into a fittingly sugary rock chorus, the overall effect somewhere between T'Pau and Curve. Parts of "Skin" are pulsing techno, but stretches of it also shut off the engines and drift, letting the surrounding air sing its own part. The lyrics of "Nothing Really Matters" are sadly inept, and the song threatens, throughout, to let its mask slip, revealing "Like a Prayer" underneath, but there's some amusingly disharmonic synth-vibe meandering toward the end, and a few haunting breaths of wailing backing-vocals in the coda. "Sky Fits Heaven", with its imperturbable quarter-note bass-drum and flanged sci-fi noises, has the architecture of a drum-and-bass chill-out theme, but slides into a chorus that sounds enough like Madonna's early years for this to almost be a remix of something from them. I skip the mangled Indian chant "Shanti/Ashtangi", but "Frozen", all orchestral sentiment, metallic percussion and ethereal singing, sounds a lot like Clannad taking another stab at studio pop. "To Have and Not to Hold" reminds me of Jean Michel Jarre's sequencer rumbas, smoothed out into a sweeping ballad. "Little Star" is rather simplistic spirituality, but the whole song is redeemed, for me, by Madonna's feather touch on the single word "Butterfly". My favorite song, though, is "The Power of Good-Bye", not only for its Yaz-like arpeggiator lines, clicking drum tracks and what I swear is a sample from Thomas Dolby's "The Flat Earth", but because the lyrics, for once, which turn on the strangely uplifting affirmation "There's no greater power than the power of good-bye", allow some genuinely complicated emotions to seep into them. I doubt, somehow, that Madonna meant this as an explanation for the jump-cut logic of her public life, nomadism driven by the frightened conviction that you only define yourself by what you escape from, but it does make me wonder whether a real person will someday emerge from Madonna's kaleidoscope of faces, after all. I wonder if I'll recognize it, when I see it. I wonder if she will.
Hole: Celebrity Skin
While the Spice Girls have been eating into Madonna's franchise from the gleeful cartoon-pop direction, Courtney Love has been busily intruding at the opposite, confrontational end of the spectrum. Madonna's chameleon tendencies make her an elusive role model, but Courtney is simply problematic. Whether she is privately blameless or not, the public version of Courtney Love must co-exist with the accusations that she threatened to kill journalists, took heroin while pregnant, manipulates everyone around her, is only pretending to have cleaned up, has had extensive plastic surgery, drove Kurt to suicide, tried to have him killed, had him killed, killed him. The picture of her on the cover of this album, which presumably she thought about and approved, makes her look like the rarely-coherent slut the high-school drug clique all had sex with when they couldn't find real girlfriends. About the most harmless thing "I want to grow up to be like Courtney Love" could have meant, up until now, was "I want to take a really long time making my new record, while people amuse themselves by arguing about exactly how evil I am." It doesn't help that, at least for me personally, Hole's music has never come close to living up to Courtney's notoriety. You could hardly have picked a more provident and ambitious album title than Live Through This, but the band's garish, jagged guitars made my skin crawl, and Courtney's braying, atonal singing voice made me dream of sheep being gutted. I wanted so badly to express my respect for Kurt's legacy, but Hole's music never seemed to me to possess any traces of his spirit.
Kurt's spirit is even less in evidence on Celebrity Skin, which finds Hole taking the first step toward a reconciliation with Courtney's new mainstream aspirations. Produced by Michael Beinhorn, perhaps most relevantly known for Soul Asylum's commercial breakthrough, Grave Dancers Union, Celebrity Skin is airbrushed and gel-filtered from its very first notes of shiny, stun-gun guitar buzz. "Celebrity Skin", whose guitar is so sharply articulated it almost sounds more like a sample, is short, fast and violent, Courtney opening the album with the admission "Oh, make me over, / I'm all I want to be, / A walking study / In demonology", which is either courageous or foolish, depending on whether you think the rest of the record offers any reasonable justification for her behavior. "Awful", however, second, turns down the aggression and bounces into a chiming pop-rock anthem, Courtney's trademark sneer only audible for a phrase or two, here and there, the rest of it blending a Bananarama-ish pop lilt with some Runaways punk howl. "Hit So Hard"'s hook is close enough to Eve's Plum's "Wishing the Day Away" to make lawyers salivate, and the "He hit so hard / I saw God" chorus will make Courtney no friends in abuse-counseling circles. "Malibu" is deadpan mainstream rock, stair-step engine-rev guitar riffs and sighing backing-vocal harmonies spinning over a solid mid-tempo drum gallop. "Reasons to be Beautiful", hoarse, strident, surging and slab-like, is the shape of a White Zombie song, only slower and with several fewer distortion pedals. "Dying", co-written by the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, would have had different instruments and a different voice if Corgan had put it on Adore, but the score wouldn't require much alteration. "Use Once & Destroy" is cyclical and pummeling, Eric Erlandson's guitar-and-voice lullaby "Northern Star" comes within an inch of launching into the chorus of Live Through This' "Violet", and I suspect "Boys on the Radio" would sound like Soul Asylum even without Beinhorn around. The sturdy, graceful "Heaven Tonight" could be a Go-Go's cover, but "Playing Your Song" is seething and spiteful, only some psychedelic guitar flourishes marring the agit-punk fury, and "Petals", the finale, sounds almost exactly like Metallica. Overall, my persistent impression is that this album is Hole's attempt to do what Veruca Salt did on Eight Arms to Hold You, and Everclear did on So Much for the Afterglow, abandoning indie anger and gloom for gleeful rock-and-roll excess. The occasional shouting interludes and the few veiled references to Kurt feel like token inclusions establishing just enough continuity to keep devoted fans from being disgusted at the ease with which Courtney has given up what used to seem like her core principles.
What saves this album, though, for me, is that Courtney isn't quite capable of making it what it seems like she wants it to be. Her songwriting style isn't nearly as melodic as Gordon and Post's, or Art Alexakis', which means that these songs end up as rock, even when they try their hardest to be pop. She sinks into the instruments' grip, despite her best efforts to stay out of their way, too much Stevie Nicks and too little Cyndi Lauper. The anger sneaks back into her voice every time her concentration flags; sunniness and giddiness are constitutionally impossible. Beinhorn does everything he can, but the guitars still leap out searching for basement walls, not football stadium machicolations. Hole is still a noisy punk band, in its heart, no matter what Courtney tries to dress it in, and so this can't be Grave Dancers Union, after all, and can't follow the rest of rock into trumpets and falsetto. But there is a role in this very exclusion, if she can agree to terms with it, for Courtney and for her band. If she can accept that production gloss can no more exorcise the ghost of Nirvana from her past, nor insert it into her music, than she can eliminate the croak from her voice with throat lozenges, then there's still time for Hole to be a champion, appropriating the powers of rock and mainstream fame to use in the ongoing critique of complacency that her subconscious, if she's lucky, won't ever let her give up on.
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