Is It Your Hope That Keeps You Warm?
250 · 11 November 99
Melanie C: Northern Star
Unless I'm forgetting something, I have made only five major standing offers in the history of this column, and I've yet to be taken up on any of them. One, to write the liner notes for a Big Country b-sides collection, was rendered moot when Restless Natives & Rarities came out last year (with track annotations by Stuart Adamson himself, so I can hardly complain). Lita Ford has not responded to my proposal to write the lyrics for her next album, but she hasn't made a next album without me, either, so there's still hope. The software company I work for hasn't gone public, so it's too early to talk about the SETI project I said I'd fund. Juliana hasn't written back.
The fifth promise was that if the Spice Girls ever ditched their studio mercenaries, taught themselves to play instruments and made a record, inept or not, entirely under their own power, I would be their biggest champion. I like to imagine Geri Halliwell contemplating this possibility for a fraction of a second, before deciding to aim Schizophonic at continued global media-notoriety and inconceivable personal wealth. The second Spice-related solo album, Melanie Chisholm's Northern Star, isn't blessed with much DIY individuality, either. Mel C herself is listed as the co-writer of all dozen of these songs, but when the rest of the credits include William Orbit, Patrick McCarthy, Rick Nowels, Marius De Vries, Richard Stannard, Julian Gallagher, Billy Steinberg, Rhett Lawrence, Steve Sidelnyk, Matt Rowe, Rick Rubin, Phil Thornalley, Dave Munday and Craig Armstrong, whose combined songwriting and production chart-clout makes Elvis look like Jandek, it doesn't take much mean-spirited cynicism to prompt speculation that Mel C's "co-writing", in this context, might have mainly involved dropping by the studio every few days to remind all present that she still has three-fifths as much money as God. The album's artistic credibility is given no boost by her decision to list all seventeen engineers and sixteen recording studios in the credits, but never, anywhere in the package, mention the name of a single musical instrument or musician. And looking at the booklet photographs, I'm overcome by grudging respect for whatever PR firm contrived to get her nicknamed anything but Scrawny. (Three of them also show her in a mesh shirt through which her nipples are faintly visible, which prompted Virgin USA to ship the disc in a less-revealing cardboard sleeve, apparently not feeling, as I do, that the pictures make her look more like Iggy Pop than anything else.)
It has been the prevailing wisdom that Mel C is the one that "can actually sing", and although anybody whose tastes are not strictly bounded by technique will have noted that the word "actually", in that phrase, is of no significance, it's clear what people mean by it, and her performances here suggest that the praise isn't completely idle. She sings fine, not diva-level by any stretch of the imagination, but at least as well, technically, as Shirley Manson, Natalie Imbruglia or Christina Aguilera. I'll admit, though, that outside of a handful of short passages in which she lets traces of strain show, her singing voice seems basically anonymous to me. Her speaking voice's thick accent mostly disappears when she sings (which is not necessarily a criticism; Stuart Adamson doesn't sing in his brogue, either), and what's left is clear, but featureless. I'm guessing I've listened to this album two dozen times, and I still have absolutely no confidence that I would be able to recognize another Mel C song just from her singing. And as I usually prefer personality to technique, even (and perhaps especially) to technique's exclusion, the fact that two weeks of high rotation haven't revealed any appreciable idiosyncrasies doesn't bode well for this album's future in my life.
A some point well before the two-dozenth repetition, however, it dawns on me that "doesn't bode well" and song-memorizing high-rotation coexist uneasily. I still want to know whether this music flowed from hands or clicked out of formulas, and I still wish Mel C sang like Maria McKee or Aimee Mann or Emm Gryner, but however critical I would have expected those details to seem, intellectually, I am puzzled and pleased to report that they have no detectable bearing on my enjoyment of the album. In fact, I liked it pretty well after listening to it once, liked it a lot after listening to it twice, and after two-dozen times through I'm not sure my adoration has plateaued. I love this album. It's not Spice-Girls brash, nor Alanis-Morissette intimate, but it's graceful and touching. The Spice Girls have always been cartoon characters (and Geri's post-departure persona, though drawn in a more sophisticated style, is no less abstract), and corporate cartoon characters at that, but this doesn't seem like a cartoon or a commercial to me. Maybe Madonna deserves some credit, since so many of Northern Star's producers were involved with Ray of Light in one capacity or another. I think I like both albums for similar reasons. They resist their own legacies. It would have been incredibly easy for either one to be shiny, plastic and soulless, even easier for Mel C than Madonna, since Madonna's prior experience in superficiality had, if nothing else, breadth. The two Spice Girls albums, to me, are archetypical examples of music made by people who read about records in magazines, instead of actually listening to them. Putting one on in your home is the moral/aesthetic equivalent, in my philosophy, of Cher plopping an unsliced log of frozen cookie dough into the oven, in Clueless, so that the house will smell like cooking when her date arrives (and if anybody ever left one playing in my house, I hope my alarm system would have the alacrity to object). Northern Star isn't that. It's not punk, either, but it's a real record, not a toy.
It may also be the most coherent record ever constructed by seventeen engineers in sixteen studios, which doesn't at all mean that it isn't varied. "Go!", the opener, crashes in with booming, Spector-ish drums, percussively-gated guitar roar, sighing backing vocals and some twinkling synth-vibes, Mel's bluesy wail somewhere in between Martha Reeves and Tina Turner. "Northern Star" is silky and atmospheric, easing from glassy Ray of Light-esque synth fills to ABBA/Roxette-style string runs. "Goin' Down" feints towards rock, Mel yelping menacingly into a cheap megaphone (or into a $2000 vintage microphone routed through a $4000 digital emulation of a cheap megaphone, more likely) while a drum loop grimly pounds and buzzy guitar-samples swoop in like avenging owls, but the chorus is as glorious and unscathed as Garbage's "When I Grow Up". The dense, sparkling "I Turn to You" reminds me alternately of recent Roxette and Seven the Hard Way-era Pat Benatar. "Never Be the Same Again" is the token r&b number, with a cameo from TLC's Lisa Lopes for cultural authenticity, but a few record-scratching noises and a short rap in the middle aren't nearly enough to disguise the song as anything but a dance-pop ballad on the order of Savage Garden or the Backstreet Boys. "Why" tries to oscillate from pensive to shrill, like one of Alanis' soundtrack epics, and to me misjudges both extremes, but "Suddenly Monday" is sunny, breathtakingly-unguarded, nearly-Bacharachian pop, brimming with piano and horns, like a Ben Folds song rearranged for Tracey Ullman, just in case The Muppet Show is ever resurrected on short notice. "Ga Ga" is a lot like Garbage, but also a little like the loud songs on the Cardigans' Gran Turismo. The gentle, sultry "Be the One" recalls Edie Brickell perhaps a little too vividly for my tastes, but the desultory samba of "Closer"'s verses blurs into an airy, sentimental chorus, and abruptly, endearingly, Melanie seems very young. "Feel the Sun", the finale, seems like a pretty obvious homage to Ray of Light's "Drowned World/Substitute for Love", to me, but it's executed reverently enough that I don't mind.
The song that pushes me from admiration into rapture, though, "If That Were Me", is back in the middle, and the first time through I thought it might be the album's death, not its life. The music is simple, unhurried and of-the-moment, a cross between Alanis' "Unsent" and Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn" perhaps, mostly acoustic guitar and strings. The lyrics are about homelessness, and any sane advisor would have told Mel not to try this. "Are you happy where you are, / Sleeping underneath the stars?" I heard the first time, and "I couldn't live without my phone, / But you don't even have a home", and her vague awareness of how little she understands about the problem only made the naïveté of writing about it anyway that much more unforgivable. Melanie Chisholm wasn't always rich, of course, but Sporty, the icon, has no past. When the only agenda was Girl Power, it didn't matter, because Girl Power doesn't require history. Social empathy, on the other hand, does. Geri's UN role, indeed, isn't to share anybody's pain, it's to distract them from it, to hold a hungry girl's hand for a second as a way of saying, on behalf of the rest of the world, not that we're all hungry, too, and not that she won't still be hungry tomorrow, but that we love her, even though she's starving, that we don't blame her for her misfortunes. Americans traditionally have trouble with this nuance, which is why our humanitarian impulses tend to result in fiascos like half the world learning English from Mormons, or Michael Jackson showing up to take some kids to a toy store, and then panicking in the crowd and hitting one with his limousine while trying to escape. Seeking to dignify homelessness by pretending to admire the victim's resilience is as misguided as any of these.
But finally, the third or fourth time I heard the song, I paid enough attention to the whole thing to realize that it knows better. "How did you fall? / Did you fall at all?", Mel asks, and all of a sudden she's not a famous singer or an ambassador of hope, she's just a girl, confused but trying earnestly not to be condescending. "Some turn away so they don't see. / I bet you'd look if that were me", she says, and in only a few words she's turned the song inside out. It's no longer a smug message from all of us, in our homes, to the faceless people without them, a braying "We Are the World" fly-by from a wedge of imperial angels, it's now personal, a conversation between emotional peers. "We Are the World" was grandstanding, this is the opposite. By the end, Melanie's question has become "Are we happy where we are?", and she gets away with the pronoun reversal, I think, because she has successfully extricated herself from her own image, made Sporty part of "them". The final detail of the inversion is to turn the question around. "Where do they go, / And what do they do?" It's the people walking by, hurrying to the shops, or home from work, who are in peril, the people who think that because they can't hear their own problems clearly, they don't have any. In fact, they have so many they're drowning each other out. The first step to solving a problem is simplifying it. I wish my life were better, but I have no good idea about what I should do tomorrow to improve it. If I were homeless right now, tomorrow's strategy (if not its tactics) would be clear. Mel's gift to the homeless person in the song is recasting their problem as loneliness, and then asking for their advice on hers. Yes, of course, this misdiagnoses the cause of much homelessness (I'm pretty sure that most of the matted, muttering figures huddled in doorways around Harvard Square tonight aren't there because they don't feel needed), but it's an attempt to reach out to whoever can be reached. The ones who are homeless because of mental illnesses weren't going to be saved by songs, anyway. Simplify the problem, find the pieces you can solve, and solve them. This song might save somebody. It might save me. Melanie didn't learn to play guitar, but in the end that wasn't the solution, after all. Their music isn't why the Spice Girls aren't people, it's the other way around. It took seventeen engineers and sixteen recording studios to convince me that there's a person under this cartoon, that there was a person under there all along, but now I know. Now I will look at every cartoon differently, watching it as it moves, learning to see through the drawn-on lines to the sinews underneath. This album might tank, on the Spice Girls' scale of things, but it will still reach a lot of people, and I will imagine, perhaps foolishly, that some of them will learn the same lesson from it that I did. Cartoons are us not looking deeply enough. The Spice Girls' cartoon shells are brighter and thicker than yours and mine, probably, but look how they lift right off. We learn to see their seams by watching them disassemble themselves, and then, with enough practice, maybe eventually we'll be able to tell which lines are which when we look at each other, and ourselves.
The Butchies: Population 1975
This grand, idealistic delusion, that Mel C's charming solo album will alert an entire culture to its own superficiality, that the Spice Girls will end up being the surreptitious agents of worldwide Zen, lasts about a minute and thirty-three seconds, which is three seconds for my changer to switch discs, and a minute and a half for it to get to the heart of "Insult to Injury", the first song on Population 1975, the second album by ex-Team Dresch singer Kaia Wilson's trio The Butchies. What the hell was I thinking? The Spice Girls are not their own critique. If you care enough about music for Mel C's record to seem like a revelation, then you probably didn't like the Spice Girls anyway. This obscure and elaborate sense in which Northern Star is subversive is true for me, and might even be true for you, too, but inferring great truths into trivial records is kind of a parlor trick for solipsists, like sitting around pulling nickels out of your own ears, and then swindling them back from yourself in three-card monte. Do I really think Northern Star will be anybody's agent of change, the album anybody looks back on, years from now, and says "That's where I first encountered my own tastes", the way I remember Don't Look Back, and Moving Pictures, and The Golden Age of Wireless? No, I guess not. I really do adore it, and so might Spice Girls fans, and so might non-fans, but Spice Girls fans are going to hear its Spice Girls qualities, the same way I hear the other ones. The central conundrum of mass-media: the more people you reach, the less you can say to them, until you finally figure out how to reach the entire planet at once, but all you can say to them is "Pepsi". Millions of people will buy Northern Star; the Butchies will be lucky if Population 1975's sales eclipse its title. But ah, here's the kind of outreach program I'd fund if I had Bill Gates' fortune (or what, before the monopoly judgment, was Bill Gates' fortune). To the back of every copy of Northern Star, tape one of these. We'll frighten some people, no doubt. We'll have to answer a few angry questions, when the parents of young, impressionable girls find out that we've handed them a record whose booklet begins with a gay-pride exhortation. Even more depressingly, many people are so incurious that they won't even play this record if we give it to them, or they'll play it, hear that it's something else, and stop at that. Exposure is necessary for Enlightenment, but not sufficient.
But a few people, at least, are ready. Give this record to everybody who buys Mel C's, and some number of them (one in ten? a hundred? a thousand?) will put it on, not knowing why, and unexpectedly come face to face with their inner selves. We'll reach a lot of gay ones (doing the oft-denied Mel-C-is-a-lesbian rumors no favors), but the measure of cultural integration isn't the inroads minorities make into majority society, it's whether the majority feels comfortable participating (and on its own terms, not by imitation) in the minority culture. All revolutions are metaphors for each other, so we'll reach people who are dissatisfied with their lifestyles for other reasons. The liner preface begins "Coming out and staying out and being happy and beautiful and productive and positive is not done to prove anything to the straight world, it is to prove something to each other." This is just as true of any minority or community as it is of the ones based on sexual preference. The primary audience for our expressions of our values is the body of people who share them; preaching is approximately ninety-six percent reminding the choir what they already believe, and four percent recruiting new choir members. Other useful lessons included here: great joys can feel very much like torture ("Insult to Injury"), those who look forward to the future will own it ("More Rock More Talk"), your life can't be scripted and abridged like a movie ("Movies Movies"), social ecology is fragile ("Population 1975"), our subjective universe can be folded into the contours of everybody else's ("Ms. Doolittle"), no one ingredient is necessary ("Baby DNA"). The fact that some of these fables are cast in specific contexts ("Baby DNA", for example, is about a lesbian couple planning to have a child) makes them more compelling as stories, I think, without detracting from their allegorical value.
But the real reason I wish I could give this album to millions of people, and why it might be able to change the lives of precisely the sort of people Mel C would attract, is that I believe it's one of the best available single-album explications of, and introductions to, the current amorphous state of indie/punk/pop/rock. If Team Dresch were like a version of Bikini Kill who took their music as seriously as their politics, then the Butchies are a version of Sleater-Kinney who don't mind if they aren't always a difficult and acquired taste. "Insult to Injury" opens with half a minute of unvarying guitar churn, but when the song gets underway it leaps from quiet narration to gentle harmony to slashing, syncopated catharsis, parts heavy-metal bluster and parts chiming guitar arpeggios. "It's Over"'s jerky drums and insistent, melodic bass could have come from a Fugazi song, but the vocals sound more like Sleeper, and the guitars are a hybrid of oblique Voivod jazz chords and chunky Thin Lizzy rock riffs. "More Rock More Talk" extends the combined lineage of X, the Dead Kennedys, the Go-Go's and the Pixies. "Movies Movies" hints at Helium, Juliana Hatfield and Trans Am. "Population 1975" starts a cappella, and then eases into a mournful, ethereal, country-ish reverie, like Liz Phair's candor modulated through Jane Siberry's restraint. The spare, hushed lullaby "Eleanor" sounds to me like Lisa Germano covering an Ida song, or vice versa. The brief "Ms. Doolittle" is chaotic and sprawling, shouty full-speed punk to make Hole sound tame and Sleater-Kinney seem abstruse. "Love in the Hour" is like a Fugazi/Faith No More collaboration fronted by Veda Hille. "Baby DNA" has a two-minute instrumental intro that might qualify as the first all-female post-rock track, but then the song itself is graceful and melancholy, with some of the vocal mannerisms of Aimee Mann and Tracey Thorn. And "Gertrude + Stein" sounds like Jen Trynin or Tracy Bonham trying to write a Christmas song around a jittery drum-machine pattern. There are enough tempo shifts and feedback squalls, in nearly all of these songs, to alienate an unsuspecting dance-pop buyer, but unlike Sleater-Kinney, who often seem to regard melody and harmony as tools of the reprehensible establishment, the Butchies tend to build their songs out of individually accessible pieces, a concession to pop reinforced by ex-dB's guitarist Chris Stamey's friendly, uncluttered production. From Mel C to the Butchies is still a jump, admittedly, but it might be within our range, and if we can go from the Spice Girls to Mel C, Mel to the Butchies, the Butchies to Mecca Normal, and Mecca Normal to 2 Foot Flame, none of which seem like outrageous transitions to me, then in four steps we've gone from the highest gloss to the lowest, from the sound of Machiavellian soda-company scheming to the tectonic groan of tiring resources, from cartoons to Polaroids. And if you can get from cartoons to Polaroids without ado, then you know, because you're proving, that all distances are trivial, including the ones between the selves we think people want us to be, and the selves we are when we're lonely.