When they say that the music industry eats its young, they usually mean its young women. Check out Britney Spears' slow decline into the baby-daddy trailer park, Christina Aguilera's difficult foray into Herbie-Hancock-album-guesting and even Mandy Moore's false rumors of rehab. The brightest stars of five years ago are the punchlines of two years ago, as Kelly Clarkson sidetracks into the bank for the IRA speech prior to her own inevitable climb to irrelevance. Avril? Are you there?
But what does the industry do with its surviving matrons? Twenty years ago right now, Cyndi Lauper (crazy!), Annie Lennox (manly!) and Madonna (slut!) were the inescapable triumvirate of the feminine paradigm, each in her own way shaping a generation and its hair through both musical innovation and image consciousness. All three were simultaneously revered and reviled for their relative "edginess," and the world, as Frankie say, was their oyster. This month sees the release of new albums from Lauper, Lennox (a hits collection plus new songs with fellow Eurythmic Dave Stewart) and Madonna, all still kicking and relatively edgy after all these years. But there is a catch.
Of course, there's always a catch.
Mass appeal ensures continued career success, but mass appeal means taking it to the kids and the niche groups. And seeing as the concept of selling a woman straddling 50 to a girl straddling a bicycle seat seems especially implausible in these days of low-rise jeans and high-rise thongs, a sort of image diversification (to speak in marketing terms) is almost necessary, if depressing. Menopause, in other words, is far from hip.
To Madonna's credit, she's still hugging hips to the best of her Kabbalah ability. Confessions on a Dancefloor finds the material girl returning to the spirit of her original material, once again squeaking assorted vanities over dance-friendly soundscapes, leaving the clumsy political posturing of American Life deservedly in the dust. If she's looking backward by co-opting ABBA for the main hook of her lead single, "Hung Up," then Madonna is prancing forward by employing a celebrated dance innovator, Les Rhythms Digitales über-geek Jacques LuCont, as producer. For a 47-year-old mother who doesn't really "go out" anymore, the album is an odd chameleonic exercise. When she rhymes "New York" with "dork" on the album track "I Love New York," even Lourdes and Rocco must be cringing on their English estate. When she sings about herself and the trials of her career, you know it's a Madonna album: self-absorbed complacency dipped in the accepted club culture of the moment.
But it's the "Hung Up" video that really confounds. A Jazzercise version of Madonna in pink leotard and heels practicing dance moves in a wood-paneled studio, only to take them out to an arcade situation for an overchoreographed dance-off replete with dance-off video game. During a trance-break, Madonna proceeds to romance a line of stylistically current street urchins (male and female), seemingly spreading her curse to another generation. She then straddles a boombox and rightfully reclaims her place in the pop culture pantheon. Genius. Or something.
To Cyndi Lauper's credit, at least she can actually sing. Lauper has for a long time been the hardest to market of her surviving class, kicking and screaming her way through label pressures and the eventual label dropping. Last year, Epic picked her up again, reintroducing her as a torch singer of other people's songs, which was strange (and beautiful). This time out, the angle is both fantastic and disturbing. Lauper's not the first artist to re-record his or her classic catalog acoustically, nor will she be the last. But there's a weird label-manipulation stench emanating from the cameos on The Body Acoustic. It's as if somebody high in some office cast a demographic net over the generation before her, pulling up such "diverse" collaborators as Sarah McLachlan, Ani DiFranco, Shaggy and Taking Back Sunday. And although it works, it does bear mentioning that this sort of career resuscitation (see Santana) is about as transparent as it gets. Of course, none of this is divulged in the crib notes it's all, apparently, incidental but it smells like a greatest hits conversation met with artistic ambivalence.
Nonetheless, it smells good.
Speaking of greatest-hits conversations, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart only have one almost-forgotten album (Peace) since their last career-capping hits collection in 1991. So the fact that they're re-emerging with another collection of hits can only mean the inclusion of something that everybody doesn't already have. Enter "I've Got a Life," their pumping new single, which returns them, as well, to the territory they once created. The video is a tribute to the many Annie faces of their career and suspiciously includes a dancing line of societal extremities. Circuit queen? Check. Leigh Bowery impersonator? Check. Fat shopping housewife? There, too. It's the old everything-to-everyone approach and knowing the blithe sensibilities of the duo is probably a mockery of the industry as much as a celebration of all things Eurythmic. Obligatory hip remixes are being serviced to gay bars everywhere, and all's well that ends well, right?
Well, maybe. But why don't the Eurythmics have an all-new album? Why doesn't Cyndi? And why doesn't Madonna just go away? Because while pop music may eat its young, nostalgia can keep its old on life support forever.
Confessions on a Dancefloor
The Body Acoustic
The Ultimate Collection