Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Trouble with Icons: Why Is It So Hard for Them to Continue Producing Essential Music?

Today while I was listening to Mary J. Blige's new album, My Life II... The Journey Continues (Act 1), my mind began to wander -- which is never supposed to happen when l'm hearing a new Mary joint for the first time.

As my brain wandered, I wondered, "What's with that unwieldy title?" Is it meant to make what is a fairly average collection of songs (and most notable for being a sequel to My Life, Blige's 1994 second album and an enduring hip-hop soul classic) sound more important than it actually is? Am I supposed to read anything into the switch from Roman to Arabic numerals within the title, or ellipses instead of a colon after "My Life II"? What exactly makes this a sequel to My Life and not just another Blige album? Will there be an Act 2?

Then my brain landed on a far more serious matter: Is it impossible to age in pop, rock, hip hop or soul while continuing to put out fresh vital music? Consider Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Jackson Browne and Elton John (among too many others to list) as well as great '80s staples like the Cure, Morrissey, R.E.M. and, to a less dramatic degree, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys and Erasure (whose so-so, recently released Tomorrow's World makes Vince Clarke's just-announced reunion with his former DM bandmate Martin Gore for a new band called VCMG sound like one of the best ideas of the year).

For all, their best work was mostly behind them halfway into their careers. Maybe that's why Billy Joel, Sting and Robert Plant had the good sense to retreat from pop and rock in favor of more supposedly age-appropriate genres, a move Linda Ronstadt had made in the '80s, reaping astonishing commercial, creative and critical rewards.

An interesting comparison can be made here to Hollywood, where Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Helen Mirren can continue to wow into their 60s, while Christopher Plummer can score his first Oscar nomination and Betty White can achieve peak popularity in their 80s. Great film directors are more likely to follow the creative trajectory of musical greats, soaring early, floundering later, and, if they're lucky (like Woody Allen, whose Midnight in Paris is the biggest hit of his career and a major 2012 Oscar contender), experience a late-in-life rebirth.

Of course, there are exceptions. After a throwaway decade (the '80s), Joni Mitchell returned revitalized and on fire with 1994's Turbulent Indigo, as did Neil Young with 1992's Harvest Moon. (Some would date Young's return to form three years earlier, with Freedom.) More recently, at 53, Kate Bush released 50 Words for Snow (which, like My Life II, came out this week), and it ranks among her greatest works to date. (Interestingly, its free-form, jazz-inflected sound recalls Mitchell's late-70s work, while Elton John sounds more amazing than he has in ages on "Snowed In at Wheeler Street," my favorite track at the moment.)

And last year, Sade, then 51, released the stellar Soldier of Love with her eponymous band. But here's the interesting twist with Bush and Sade: Soldier of Love was Sade's first album of all-new material in a decade, while Bush's new set comes six years after her last one, which came 12 years after the one before that.

So if you want to age gracefully in pop with excellent music to match, perhaps the best thing you can do is take extremely extended vacations, which would bode well for Bowie's return to record-making, if it ever transpires. Not that I don't appreciate her hard work, but perhaps Blige could use a long holiday. Since her debut in 1992 with What's the 411?, she has never gone more than two years without releasing a new studio album, a remix album, a live album or a hits compilation. Practice makes perfect, so at 40, her voice has never sounded better than it does on My Life II.

But musically, she's treading water -- again. Not that My Life II is a bad album (on the contrary, it's better than most of what passes for R&B these days), it's just that it doesn't feel quite essential. In fact, despite a few great singles and scattered album tracks here and there, Blige hasn't released a truly essential album since Mary in 1999. Her My Life II cover of Rufus and Chaka Khan's 1983 hit "Ain't Nobody" underscores the problem, and not just because it lacks the supreme musicianship of Rufus, which elevated the original as much as Chaka's vocals did. Blige doesn't bring anything special to the proceedings. She's coasting, which, frankly, Chaka herself has been doing more often than not since 1984's "I Feel for You."

The first time Blige covered Chaka ("Sweet Thing" on What's the 411?), she stole the song right out from under its co-author. "Ain't Nobody" 2011 just makes me want to skip to the next track -- or better yet, turn off the album completely and go digging for Rufus and Chaka Khan's original. (Producer Rodney Jerkins still rocks, but his electronic soundscape just can't touch the '80s synthesizers weaving around the live instrumentation of 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees Rufus.)

I'm not trying to get rid of Blige -- she will continue to be one of my all-time favorite R&B singers even if she continues releasing one slightly above-average album every couple of years for the rest of my life -- but at this point, new Mary J. Blige albums just don't fill me with the joy and anticipation that they did in years gone by.

I'm suffering from a similar loss of faith in Madonna, whose creatively fertile period lasted longer than that of most superstars, up to 2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor, which following the uneven Music (2000) and the atrocious American Life (2003), was like one of those late-in-the-game resurgences, only Madonna was still in her 40s. She's been less prolific than Blige over the last 20 years but only because she's too busy directing films, launching a clothing line, dating boy toys and being the ultimate celebrity to make music 25/8, to quote a song on Blige's new album that doesn't live up to its clever title.

The last time around, Madonna had to fall back on Justin Timberlake to score a hit, and the album, Hard Candy, sounded more like the work of her collaborators than the woman whose name was above the title. For the first single from her 2012 album, she's latched onto M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj, two artists I adore, but two artists who don't belong anywhere near the same song -- or near Madonna, for that matter.

The title of the song: "Give Me All Your Love." When the title of a new Madonna single makes me stifle a yawn, Houston (to invoke the surname of another singer whose recent work doesn't hold up, though for an entirely different reason -- drugs claim lives and beautiful voices), we most definitely have a problem.
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