Rock and Roll

Music Review: Madonna’s Rebel Heart

I have been a true blue Madonna fan for 30-plus years. Madonna’s initial appeal for me stemmed from the way she brought her East Village sensibility to the mainstream: as a native New Yorker, I totally grooved to this. Later, I would appreciate and identify with the way she let her love of classic music and cinema inspire her work. You can hear and see the influences that include Sly and the Family Stone, Marlene Dietrich, Frida Kahlo, Cabaret, Disco and Walt Whitman. Yes, Walt Whitman. On one of the songs from her 1994 album, Bedtime Stories, she quotes a line from Walt Whitman’s “Voices” from Leaves of Grass. If you had asked me in 1994 if I thought that Madonna would one day write and record a song called “Bitch I’m Madonna” I probably would have replied with a resounding no.

So what the hell happened? How did she go from being inspired by artists from Motown’s roster and Tamara de Lempicka, to being inspired by Nicki Minaj? And before you accuse me of ageism, the point I am trying to make is that her work lately has devolved and not evolved. Madonna is pushing sixty yet her earlier work was far more sophisticated. Using words like “fuck” is not necessarily excelling at songwriting or staying relevant. Is dumbing it down the only way to appeal to young people?

Rebel Heart is not a total loss. There are some good tracks and some really terrible ones. I read that she intended each song to stand-alone so that is how I am going to approach this review.

Living For Love: The best song on the album. An instant classic. Madonna at her best.

Devil Pray: The second track and the second best song. The song explores how people take drugs and religion to connect to a higher level of consciousness.

Ghosttown: The third track and the third best song. The song explores humanity connecting to one another in spite of the world’s insanity.

Unapologetic Bitch: Here is where the album starts to get shaky. The song is catchy, but sounds like something a younger and inexperienced recording artist would sing.

Illuminati: Beyonce meets Minaj.

Bitch I’m Madonna: Perhaps the worst song lyrically. The music is actually appealing, but those lyrics…

Hold Tight: Lyrically good, but overproduced musically.

Joan of Arc: For me, the most irritating song on the album. I find it absolutely ridiculous when she writes songs complaining about being famous (such as “Drowned World” from the brilliant Ray of Light). She sings, “Each time they write a hateful word, Dragging my soul into the dirt, I wanna die, Never admit it but it hurts.” Come on Madonna, you have never publicly uttered a hateful word at others? And what the hell does your fame have to do with Joan of Arc?

Iconic: A fun pop song that features Mike Tyson!

HeartBreakCity: The fourth best track on the album. It explores the aftermath of a relationship that has gone sour after putting your best foot forward. The track could have been better had it not been for the processed vocals.

Body Shop: A tongue-in-cheek song about the parallels between cars and sex.

Holy Water: A peculiar song about the miracles of oral sex. Okay Madonna, I guess eating your pussy is like holy water…? I cringed when I heard her sing, “Bitch get off my pole.” Where did you get the idea for that lyric, a reality show? She also sings, “Yeezus loves my pussy best.” I am pretty sure that she originally sang it as “Jesus”, but someone likely told her to tone it down because most of the world may not remember that she once had a boy toy named Jesus Luz (I could imagine her defending why she sang the lyric using him as the “inspiration”).

Inside Out: A great song about getting closer to someone by asking them to confess their deepest secrets. Another song where I wish she hadn’t over processed her vocals.

Wash All Over Me: A pretty good song that explores life’s uncertainties that could have been great, but again we have the over processed vocals.

Best Night: A boring song about having sex. Snooze.

Nas and Madonna

Nas gets licked by Madonna.

Veni Vidi Vici: This autobiographical song incorporates past song titles into the lyrics and features Queensbridge Rap Legend, Nas. Nas’ contribution was the best thing about this song.

S.E.X.: And yet another boring, and remarkably unimaginative song, about screwing. Yawn.

Messiah: A brilliant song about trying win over someone’s heart. I wish it were more acoustic because it had the potential to be an emotional and vocal tour de force.

Rebel Heart: The title track where Madonna finally showcases some vocals without that processing—which doesn’t translate well while listening with headphones. The track is a departure from many of the other overproduced tracks on this album.

If Madonna had cut songs like “Unapologetic Bitch” and “Bitch I’m Madonna” and brought a more acoustic feel to some of the vocals, this could have been a good album. A rebel is a person who resists any authority, control, or tradition. While I would certainly consider Madonna an artist with a rebel heart, by dumbing down lyrics to stay relevant and appeal to young people, what she is actually doing is simply marching in step with everyone else.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman: Under the Bridge

I just starting writing this blog last month and had been considering a regular feature that highlights a favorite song of mine. I was inspired by yesterday’s events as well as a Facebook posting by a high school classmate that explored the dichotomy between how a celebrity drug overdose is treated by society (with empathy and understanding) versus the overdose of an ordinary person (with scorn and shame).

Prior to watching the Super Bowl, I learned of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death from an alleged drug overdose. Later that night when I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers performing with Bruno Mars, I remembered Philip Seymour Hoffman as well as their masterpiece, “Under the Bridge.”

Anthony Kiedis wrote the lyrics after being sober for several years and felt that this had distanced him from his band mates who continued to smoke weed. Kiedis had also come out of a relationship that was badly marked by heroin and cocaine addiction. The combination of feeling that he lost a connection with his band mates and reflecting on the destructive relationship inspired this truly brilliant song.
“Sometimes I feel
Like I don’t have a partner
Sometimes I feel
Like my only friend
Is the city I live in
The city of angels
Lonely as I am
Together we cry”

In his memoir, Scar Tissue, Kiedis discussed this song:
“…the loneliness that I was feeling triggered memories of my time with Ione and how I’d had this beautiful angel of a girl who was willing to give me all of her love, and instead of embracing that, I was downtown with fucking gangsters shooting speedballs under a bridge.”

The song begins with a slow intro that was inspired by the Jimi Hendrix song “Little Wing” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8Xq0Y0dR-Q )

22_underthebridge3

The guitar playing becomes more rapid as the song progresses and after the last chorus, Kiedis is joined by an epic choir who chant “Under the bridge downtown” while Kiedis accompanies them, singing,
“Is where I drew some blood
I could not get enough
Forgot about my love
I gave my life away”.

The song was a vocal departure for Kiedis, who had spent most of his career up to this time singing rapidly. While I have never considered Kiedis to be a remarkable vocalist, his singing on this song is very sincere and absolutely unforgettable—I truly cried the first time I heard it. These lyrics and Kiedis’ vocals resonate deeply with me:
“I don’t ever want to feel
Like I did that day
Take me to the place I love
Take me all the way…”

I had not heard the song for some time and played it several times on my way to and from work today. The song felt as fresh as it did in 1992: it is beautifully textured, full bodied and grand in a very approachable way.  Like Picasso’s powerful commentary on war, Guernica ( http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/02/guer-f08.html ), “Under the Bridge” reminds us of the human casualty of drug addiction.

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Watch the music video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLvohMXgcBo

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RELATED RESOURCES:

http://teens.drugabuse.gov/

http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/drug-addiction/basics/definition/con-20020970

http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-abuse-addiction

Motown: The Musical (Review)

The first time I ever played a record on my own was in 1972, when my parents bought me a compact record player that, when closed, could not be distinguished from a suitcase.  Since I didn’t yet have any records of my own, I went to their collection and played a 45 of “Love Child” by The Supremes. On that day I became a life-long fan of The Supremes, Diana Ross and the now legendary Motown sound.Love Child 45 Record

Over the last couple of years several Broadway productions have been mounted that pay tribute to favorite singers of mine, most notably, A Night With Janis Joplin and Forever Dusty. I have been hesitant about seeing these shows because I never saw these singers live. Of course I have seen videos, but they simply do not compare to seeing and hearing someone sing live. I feel a little left out. I remember being awed by a video of Janis Joplin’s electric performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. Interestingly, someone filmed Mamma Cass Elliot’s (who was an awesome singer in her own right) reaction to Joplin’s performance and she is visibly blown away, her lips silently saying, “Wow!” I initially had mixed feelings when my sister, a fellow Motown devotee, gave me tickets to see Motown: The Musical. I wish I could have seen Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells and, of course, The Supremes live. Regardless of what I missed, I went in with an open heart and mind and was not disappointed.

Motown: The Musical explores a uniquely American institution, and its role in history.  Motown’s cultural contributions are enormous and this show bears that out.  Perhaps Motown’s greatest contribution is the way music brought people together; blacks and whites loved the music. The show does not shy away from issues like racism, segregation, poverty and war; in fact, the manner in which they are addressed felt quite germane. This was perhaps best depicted through Marvin Gaye’s timeless classic, “What’s Going On” —which was beautifully sung and performed by Jarran Muse, who magnificently captured Gaye’s sensuality, sensitivity and vocal power.

The actress playing Diana Ross, Felicia Boswell, had some big high-heel stilettos to fill. While she does not look like Diana Ross (many of the actors bore little physical resemblance to the people they were playing), she remarkably managed to capture the essence of Ross’ singing voice and, to an extent, her vibrant charisma. One of the most memorable moments is when the show re-enacts Ross’ first solo concert without The Supremes: singing “Reach Out and Touch” Boswell ventures into the audience bringing people on stage to sing with her. I have had debates with people who criticize Ross’ singing voice as weak—yes, it is not as strong as some of her contemporaries, but it is still rich, layered and vastly expressive. I have always been moved by her sincere singing in songs like “Mahogany” and “Touch me in the Morning.” Then there is Ross’ undeniable presence and star power—Boswell partially captures this, but “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”

One of my favorite moments was when the audience meets The Jackson 5 for the first time.  Raymond Luke, who played Michael Jackson, was nothing short of remarkable. The audience reaction was equally stunning: it was almost as if a young Michael Jackson was really up on the stage! Perhaps the most unexpected moment was when the audience meets Rick James, played with absolute bravado by Eric LaJuan Summers. All I can say is that you have to see it for yourself.

I was quite disturbed by Tracy McDowell’s attempt to recreate Teena Marie’s singing—-get a better singer or cut this song out!  Another curious moment is when Florence Ballard (Allison Semmes) begins behaving unpredictably and Berry Gordy, ( Brandon Victor Dixon) says, “The pressure of fame is vicious. Not everyone can go the distance.” I could have sworn I heard a few bars of “And I am Telling You”, from Dreamgirls, played on the piano.

The show makes good use of the stage, successfully integrating set pieces with video. The costumes were colorful without losing period authenticity.  The orchestra captured the Motown sound, making excellent use of tambourines, melodic electric bass-guitar lines, and orchestral strings.

Overall, I enjoyed Motown: The Musical and recommend seeing it. The music, singing and acting were excellent.  However, at times it feels like there is too much crammed into this show. Gordy, who wrote the show’s book, seemed determined to mention every act from Motown’s long roster. Gladys Knight and the Pips were only with the label briefly, considered second string and found their greatest success after leaving Motown.  Yet, they surprisingly make a brief appearance in this show. More than 50 songs are performed, many abridged, with the best presented in concert.

Gordy’s story is Motown’s story and both are truly notable and should be depicted onstage. However this show doesn’t quite do the story justice. Ultimately, this show is about great songs that have stood the test of time and will likely not be thought of in the context of this show.  The songs, and those who sang them, firmly stand on their own.

Playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, 205 West 46th Street, Manhattan, (877) 250-2929, http://www.motownthemusical.com/. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.