Monday, March 31, 2014

An April Fool's Day Mix: 10 Songs for Dummies

Every year on April 1 I make a wish: May this April Fool's Day be the one where the joke's on everyone. Oh, to hear someone say that the rapid passage of time has been all one big joke, the last three months haven't really flown by so quickly, and we're still in the middle of January, with 11 and a half months of the calendar year still ahead of us. Alas, tomorrow I'm pretty sure no one will announce that we're not already done with the first quarter of 2014, three-quarters of the year away from being halfway through the 2010s.

On the bright side, here's an April Fool's Day soundtrack to help ease you into the second quarter of 2014.

"Fool's Gold" The Stone Roses

"Don't Be a Fool" Loose Ends

"Foolish" Ashanti

"Fools" Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius

"The Fool" Elvis Presley

"The April Fools" Dionne Warwick

"April Fools" Rufus Wainwright

"Stupid" Sarah McLachlan

"Dumb Waiters" Psychedelic Furs

"Idiot Country" Electronic

Friday, March 28, 2014

Let's Talk About (Casual) Sex!: Hooking Up in the Grindr Age and a One Night Stand Mini Mix Tape

Before we get to the musical portion of today's program, a preview of my latest HuffPost Gay Voices blog post, which is all about casual sex in the Grindr age...

"How do you numb your skin after the warmest touch? How do you slow your blood after the body rush?" -- Jann Arden, "Insensitive"

I used to want to be that G.U.Y. -- not the one Lady Gaga is singing about in her latest single, but the one Jann Arden was pleading with in her mid-'90s hit. I've given up trying to emulate him, but I still encounter him regularly, in bars, in clubs, in restaurants, on Grindr -- especially on Grindr, the number-one agent for the one-off sexual experience between gay men, which turned 5 on March 25. Sometimes when I scroll down the meet-market app and see all those attractive faces and headless torsos looking for "NSA" (that is, "no strings attached") and "fun" (that Grindr-age euphemism for sex), I get a little green. How much easier life would be if that were all I wanted!
(Click here to read entry on my HuffPost Gay Voices blog...)

5 Odes to Casual Sex

"Johnny One Time" Brenda Lee

"I Don't Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" Dead Or Alive

"Fast Love" George Michael

"Get Mine, Get Yours" Christina Aguilera

"I Don't Believe in Love" Dido

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Supreme Diva Turns 70 Today: Happy Birthday, Diana Ross!

As a gay, black American male of a certain age, I probably never idolized Diana Ross enough growing up. Maybe it had something to do with her competition. When I was coming of age in the '70s and early '80s, I was too busy obsessing over Olivia Newton-John to have eyes for anyone else. On the off chance that I might be distracted and glance in another pop diva's direction, I was most likely looking at Linda Ronstadt or, after 1981, Sheena Easton.

Or perhaps my less-than-manic appreciation for Ross was due to the story of The Supremes, which Ross ruled with an iron, diamond-encrusted fist. I've always seen myself as one of the underdogs and a champion of them, too, so rooting for my fellow canines has been something of a lifelong calling. In the story of The Supremes, the underdogs would be Mary Wilson and the late Florence Ballard. Ross couldn't have shoved them into the background of the group they had started together as teenagers in Detroit without a major assist from Berry Gordy, Motown's founder and her one-time paramour (if you've seen Dreamgirls, you know that part of the story). But did she have to play the role of triumphant beauty queen at all cost so well? (The hair, the gowns, the jewels, the glamour of it all.)

I've never been so into the fierce and fabulous larger-than-life diva with big hair and an even bigger ego. I've always preferred my female pop obsessions sweeter, more modest, emphasizing goodness as much as glamour. So I always regarded Ross with a little suspicion and a lot of fear. I heard that music's other "The Boss" (to quote the title of her 1979 Top 20 hit), the female one, was quite the ball-buster!

But there's no denying her talent and influence. Diana Ross was to the '60s (as a Supreme) and to the '70s (as a solo act and Best Actress Oscar nominee for the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues) what Madonna was to the '80s, what Mariah Carey was to the '90s, what Britney Spears was to the '00s, and what Rihanna and Katy Perry are to the '10s. In the world of pop without edge, where beauty and melody rule, she was everything. It's been decades since Ross, who turns 70 today, March 26, last scored a chart triumph, but her greatest hits -- 10 of which I offer here as a birthday tribute -- will forever resonate in the pop kingdom she once called her house.

"When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes" The Supremes (1963) I prefer Dusty Springfield's rendition of the often-overlooked Holland-Dozier-Holland gem (from A Girl Called Dusty, her 1964 debut), but I still appreciate the rarely exhibited grit that Ross brought to the proceedings on the trio's first Top 40 hit (No. 23).

"Come See About Me" The Supremes (1964) In the 1980s, four British acts -- Soft Cell, Phil Collins, The Hollies and Kim Wilde -- all scored hits with covers of Supremes No. 1's ("Where Did Our Love Go," "You Can't Hurry Love," "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "You Keep Me Hangin' On," respectively), while as far as I know, the only Brit with the guts to make this one over was Wales' Shakin' Stevens, who failed where the others succeeded (on the charts).

"Reflections" Diana Ross & The Supremes (1967) The debut of the re-christened trio and its new psychedelic-pop sound dwelt on days past while signalling future days, the final ones of the Ross-led Supremes and also of its near-infallible hit machine. After four consecutive previous No. 1's, this one peaked at No. 2, beginning a reversal of chart fortunes that would send only two more Supremes singles -- 1968's "Love Child" and 1969's "Someday We'll Be Together" -- to the top before Ross's departure following the latter.

"Upside Down" (1980) The first time Diana Ross the solo star really mattered to me. Hands down the best thing she ever did, with or without The Supremes.

"Why Do Fools Fall in Love" (1981) It might seem like a strange move to mark a much-hyped label switch (from Motown to RCA Records) with a faithful cover of a 1950s teen-pop classic, but Ross quietly ran away with the song, turning it into a Top 10 hit in both the U.S. and the UK.

"Mirror, Mirror" (1981) Incredibly, 1980's one-two punch of "Upside Down" and "I'm Coming Out" aside, the follow-up to "Fools" marked the only time in Ross's career that she scored consecutive solo Top 10 hits on Billboard's Hot 100.

"Muscles" (1982) Can you imagine a major female pop star delivering such shameless camp with a straight face today? Or a supposedly heterosexual male pop star (in this case, Michael Jackson) actually admitting to writing it? The sudden key change at 3:37 still gives me chills.

"Pieces of Ice" (1983) Having peaked at a lowly No. 31, Ross's contribution to the then-blooming new-wave genre is probably her best song that you've never heard (or don't remember).

"All of You" (1984) Pop fans were still too gaga over "To All the Girls I've Loved Before," Julio Iglesias's No. 5 duet with Willie Nelson, to realize that his pairing with Diana Ross actually produced the better song, which stalled 14 notches lower.

"Chain Reaction" (1985) It was perhaps the most tell-tale sign of Ross's waning commercial clout that Barry Gibb, the Midas who, with his brothers Robin and Maurice, had crafted early '80s smashes for Ross contemporaries like Barbra Streisand and Dionne Warwick, not to mention Kenny Rogers, couldn't get Ross higher than No. 66 on Billboard's Hot 100. As a consolation prize, though, it topped the UK singles chart, the second solo Ross single to do so, the other, curiously, being 1971's "I'm Still Waiting," another non-U.S. hit that peaked in the 60s (No. 63, to be exact).

Thoughts on the Third-Season Finale of "Girls"

As we did last week with Episodes' entire third season, let us now consider the third-season finale of Girls through its main characters, the titular quartet.

Hannah Here's the thing about Hannah: She's infuriating. This season she actually showed signs of growth (Loreen Horvath's shrewd observation about Adam aside, Hannah's was the sole voice of reason among the women of her extended family when her grandmother was in the hospital), but when she backslid, she fell way down to the depths of the gutter. I get her frustration with Adam. It didn't take Patti LuPone to tell me that Adam was acting like a prick. If he wants to be an actor, especially a stage actor, he's going to have to learn how to live in the real world while practicing his craft. He can't push his girlfriend away every time he gets an acting gig because she interferes with his concentration process. ("When I see you, I think play time" is so condescending and trivializing.) When Daniel Day-Lewis goes Method, at least he's on location somewhere, presumably away from his wife, Rebecca Miller, so it's not like he's completely ignoring her from just a few blocks away.

But then, actors might be the only people on earth who are even more self-absorbed than writers, which probably makes them a terrible match. Hannah and Adam are both flowers right now, and every relationship needs a gardener. Hannah's timing was so predictable. She told Adam about grad school right before his debut performance as a sort of payback and also to make the moment all about her. (In a bit of brilliant acting, Lena Dunham spotlighted the wheels turning in Hannah's head.) Adam, in return, made Hannah's news all about him. I've hated Adam ever since he came all over Shiri Appleby last season. He and Hannah are probably doomed, and I couldn't be more thrilled.

Walking away from him was the smartest thing Hannah did all episode. And I loved her final word. When I left David sitting alone in that bar in Bangkok a year and a half ago, I so wish I had said "Have a nice trip" on my way out.

Marnie Here's the other thing about Hannah: For a self-involved writer so lacking in self-awareness, she's very good at zeroing in on other people's flaws. I've never been a fan of Marnie, but this season she actually made me wish her bodily harm. Her insecurity is so extreme that it could almost be its own character. It drives nearly everything she does. There hasn't been a single moment this season that she's even remotely seemed like someone I'd want to be around.

I generally don't like it when women on TV go around bitch slapping each other, but I was secretly hoping that Marnie would get hers during the bathroom altercation with Clementine, whose boyfriend she had just kissed. Marnie reminds me of Abby, the character Donna Mills used to play on Knot's Landing, always going after guys who are either involved with or connected to other women. (In the second season, she even started sniffing around Charlie, the boyfriend she had dumped, when he was with another girl, like his unavailability made him appealing again.)

At least you could see what Abby was going for (money and power). Elijah (Hannah's now-gay ex), Ray (Shoshanna's ex) and Desi (the creepy guy in Adam's play who doth protest too much that he belongs to Clementine) are no keepers, and Marnie knows it. She just wants to prove that she can get the guy, any guy. To go around swooning and bragging because your un-single songwriting partner just planted a big one on you seems like the act of an unstable and dangerous woman. She has it coming, and if Desi's jealous soon-to-be ex doesn't deliver it next season, I sort of hope Shoshanna does.

Jessa At least Jessa has an excuse for most of her bad behavior this season. She's a junkie. That's not an excuse, but it's an explanation. The drugs made her do it! I actually liked her for the first time in the season finale, and I wish the storyline with her and the elderly artist (the great Louise Lasser, decades away from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) had played out over more episodes like it did on 90210 when Sally Kellerman was the woman of a certain advanced age. I've never seen myself as the type of person who could bring myself to help someone die, for various reasons, none of them being because they might change their mind when it's almost too late. What a twist. I so didn't see that coming.

Shoshanna Zosia Mamet delivers the goods acting-wise, so it's a shame that Lena Dunham seems to care least about her character. After three seasons, I feel like we hardly know Shoshanna, and I really want to. Why is she such an odd duck? Did her parents make her do it? Have we even seen her parents? During the weekend-getaway episode where she blasted her friends, revealing a previously unseen assertiveness and rage, I actually found myself fearing her a little. There's definitely something there.

The intermission scene with her and Ray was the highlight of the finale. It was so raw and real. We've all been there, wishing we could turn back the clock and redo a bad choice, but how many of us have the guts to actually beg an ex to take us back a year after dumping him. (I briefly considered it last year, so I understand what it took for Marnie to do it.) It doesn't matter that I don't understand why she wants Ray. What does matter is that it's not because of what happened between him and Marnie -- Shoshanna clearly had a reconciliation in mind even before Marnie revealed her fling with Ray -- but rather, in spite of it, which must be true love indeed. I don't want them back together next season, but I do want to know what's really going on with Shoshanna.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Sound of Cape Town: One More Reason to Love This City

Cape Town doesn't just look breathtaking. It sounds awesome, too.

And if there are several things I've learned in my decades of world travel, one of them is this: Sometimes it's all about the soundtrack. I can still remember what I was listening to at the very moment in 1995 when London first topped my favorite-cities list (a position it retains to this day). I was sitting in the back of a taxi when I was overcome with affection for the song playing on the radio. It was so sad, so moving, so beautifully sung. If I hadn't been giddy on wine and Smirnoff Ice, I probably would have burst into tears right there.

"What's this?" I asked the taxi driver, certain he wouldn't have a clue. "I think it might be the most amazing thing I've ever heard." I was tipsy, but I wasn't lying. The woman singing was killing me softly with her song.

"It's Randy Crawford -- 'One Day I'll Fly Away,'" he said proudly, as if he'd produced it himself.

I knew her. She was the ethereal black lady with the braids whom I used to see on BET's Video Soul in 1989 singing her Top 10 R&B cover of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." There was more to her than the two covers I knew her for, the other being her 1992 remake of Journey's "Who's Crying Now"? Could she be any lower-profile, though? (Yes, Chandler and Friends, which had been on for a year, must already have been affecting my inflection.) How did they know her in England?

The next day, I went to Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus and bought one of her greatest-hits compilations, kicking off a love affair that continues to this second. Years later, I saw Crawford in concert at the Beacon Theater in New York City, and she spent an entire song lying on her back on the floor staring up at the ceiling. She still didn't miss a note. I'm sure she was as wasted as I had been that first night in the taxi.

It wouldn't be until the Wikipedia era that I'd discover that hearing Crawford singing on London radio in 1995 hadn't been so unusual, after all. She'd had a considerable UK run, which might have been why there had been so many of her compilations to choose from at Tower. "One Day I'll Fly Away" was No. 2 hit in the UK in 1980, one in a string of chart singles (including the No. 4 "Almaz" six years later) that Crawford had earned across the ocean from her native country, where her only Top 40 success was as the vocalist on The Crusaders' 1979 No. 36 jazz-pop classic "Street Life."

A week after my Randy Crawford experience nearly caused my heart to fail in the back of a taxi, London was calling me again through song. This time, I knew what I was hearing. It was "The Love Inside," an album track from Barbra Streisand's 1980 blockbuster Guilty album. I would have been perfectly happy listening to "Woman in Love" or "What Kind of Fool" or the title track (and back in the U.S.A. I very well might have been, for at the time, each was still an easy-listening staple), but you've got to love a city where you can hear "The Love Inside," of all Guilty pleasures, on the radio.

London will forever be the city where I fell in love with Randy Crawford, rediscovered "The Love Inside," and heard Simply Red's "Fairground" and Mariah Carey's "Fantasy" for the first time en route to Heathrow in a taxi (on two separate occasions). So I guess you can say that London's taxi drivers are largely responsible for my love of the city. They sure know how to keep a guy coming back.

As, apparently, do whoever is responsible for selecting the music that plays in some of Cape Town's restaurants. The reason I keep returning to Cafe Mojito has everything to do with the fact that they serve a killer feta and bacon omelette for 30 rand (a little less than $3), and they have excellent Wi-Fi, but the music enhances the get-online-for-free-while-you-enjoy-your-meal experience. The first time I went, they were playing the late Argentine folk great Mercedes Sosa. Another time, it was Bob Marley's Rastaman Vibration album, which I just happened to have been listening to on my iPod when I walked in.

Yesterday, for the first time in weeks, I went back to my other favorite Cape Town food institution, Fat Cactus, which, come to think of it, had never before impressed me for anything other than its food, mango margaritas and nostalgia value as the first Cape Town restaurant I ever ate in. I can't even tell you if I'd ever heard music playing there. But yesterday, the Fat Cactus soundtrack was just as enjoyable as the three mini-burgers I devoured.

First, they played George Strait's 1981 debut album, Strait Country, in its entirety. It was followed by Donald Fagen's 1982 solo debut, The Nightfly, after which came Steely Dan's Gaucho, the 1980 studio album by Fagen's former duo that preceded their two-decades-long hiatus and produced their final Top 10 pop hit, "Hey Nineteen." I was sad to have to leave a few songs into it.

"The Cuervo Gold
The fine Colombian
Make tonight a wonderful thing"

"Unwound" George Strait

"Ruby Baby" Donald Fagen

"Hey Nineteen" Steely Dan

All three were landmark platinum albums that had absolutely nothing to do with the reigning new-wave electro-pop sound of the early '80s (The Nightfly remains one of my all-time favorite long players) and therefore wouldn't be the leading contenders for early '80s albums most likely to be played in their entirety during lunch -- especially in a Mexican restaurant in the middle of Cape Town.

Maybe you'd get Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen" or Fagen's "I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)" in a sophisticated Manhattan bar and grill, or George Strait's "Unwound" if the culinary specialty is Southern fried. But I didn't think I'd ever hear Fagen's cover of "Ruby Baby" anywhere outside of my iPod, and I can't remember the last time I heard Strait's "Down and Out," the Top 20 country hit that was sandwiched between "Unwound" and "If You're Thinking You Want a Stranger (There's One Coming Home)." I'll be back -- for more than those mini-burgers.

That also goes for the little bar down the road from my apartment with the name that's always escaped me. Yesterday I went there for a late-afternoon glass of wine with a friend, and the music they were playing was as enjoyable as the conversation. I'd never heard any of it, but one song in particular, sung entirely in French and featuring what sounded like a children's choir, stood out like the Eiffel Tower.

"What is this?" I asked the moody bartender.

"I have no idea," he said with a shrug.

Of course, he didn't -- just like the bartender at 5th of May in Jerusalem who spent all night playing one fierce jam after another, and just like Laurentio, my Pilates teacher in Buenos Aires who used to distract me from my breathing with his excellent taste in music. What is it with cute guys who never know what song is playing? Don't they know how sexy musical knowledge can be?

If they're like Laurentio, they just collect mp3s from friends in bulk and never bother to get a track list. I'll have to remember to download Shazam so that I can stop depending on people who are bad with names. That might be okay with one-night stands, but I've got to know what I'm listening to, especially if I want to go home and download it for myself. It might even go on to set the mood for one of those one-night stands, and if I can't remember his name, I'd like to at least be able to name that tune.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Can Lady Gaga Go from "G.U.Y." (Girl Under You) to Woman Back on Top?

"You can't hit a home run every time," an editor told me one Friday morning after slamming an article I had just turned in. Though he later recanted his negative review of my piece (he'd been in a rotten mood when he first read it, and a second pass got him to reconsider it "fantastic"), he stood by the comment in general.

Fifteen years later, so do I. I've now been at this long enough to understand and accept the reality of creativity: Not every editor or reader is going to connect with every article or blog post or book that I write. My work won't always garner 1.2K "likes" and counting on Facebook (as my fourth HuffPost essay just did) or, "likes" or not, fill me up with a personal sense of accomplishment. We play to win, but sometimes we strike out. It's the nature of any game.

That goes for pop superstars, too. Lately, the one people seem to be deeming a loser most is Lady Gaga, thanks (or no thanks) to ARTPOP, her underperforming third studio album. Thus far, it has produced only one Top 10 single, "Applause," which, though arguably the best thing Gaga has ever done (and it didn't need a shrill high-concept video to prop it up), only managed a No. 4 peak on Billboard's Hot 100. After nearly five months in circulation, ARTPOP has yet to go platinum, prompting People magazine music critic Chuck Arnold to wonder "What's Going Wrong with the Pop Star?" in a March 20 editorial.

What a difference a couple of years, a virtual eternity in pop, has made. When Gaga's "Born This Way Ball" tour hit Bangkok amid controversy in 2012 while I was living there, her arrival was front-page news. For weeks, it seemed she was the only thing everyone could talk about. Now I wonder if they even play "Applause" at DJ Station. Can her latest album's third single, "G.U.Y." (the follow-up to the Gaga-R. Kelly duet "Do What You Want," which peaked at a lowly No. 13), reverse ARTPOP's fortunes when the video premieres today (March 22) on Dateline NBC? In other words, can this album, this career, be saved? Does this career even need to be?

Some might blame Gaga's recent slump on the circle of pop life, which has rendered her overshadowed by younger envelope-pushing stars like Miley Cyrus the way she once overshadowed Madonna. Compared to Miley's twerking and tongue lashings, her riding a wrecking ball nude and coming onto Madonna during an MTV Unplugged performance, Gaga's meat dress now seems kind of quaint.

Or was ARTPOP just not good enough? As someone who has always found Gaga talented but her albums only intermittently entertaining, I'm not so sure about that one. As with her previous two studio albums, ARTPOP is no front-to-back musical masterpiece, but it has just as many standout moments: I expect "Applause" to hold up as well as "Poker Face" in a few years, and tracks like "G.U.Y." and "Sexxx Dreams" -- a British-accented, '80s-inflected porn anthem that stripteases between the edge of glory and flesh for fantasy -- will probably live on in medium rotation on my iPod beside Born This Way's "Government Hooker" and "Heavy Metal Lover."

I don't think Gaga's sales decline has as much to do with Miley and a dip in musical quality as it does with the natural course of artist development, which is increasingly compromised by impatient label executives and sagging overall industry sales. We live in desperate times when artists are no longer allowed to gradually evolve into million-sellers or ride out a commercial storm or two. Every album is expected to be a blockbuster, and every pop star is only as valuable as his or her current album's sales.

In contrast, Hollywood's heaviest hitters, the Tom Cruises, the Sandra Bullocks, the Will Smiths, are allowed to have a flop movie or a string of failures without being cast aside completely. A commercial rebound is always considered to be a distinct possibility. Nobody is calling Will Smith over in the United States after his last film, 2013's After Earth, only grossed $60.5 million during its entire North American run. (The bulk of its cumulative intake, $244 million, came from overseas markets.) In fact, he still landed the coveted spot at the recent Academy Awards as the Best Picture Oscar presenter.

Can Gaga rise again? Can ARTPOP? If "G.U.Y." doesn't do the trick -- and considering how infrequently, third and fourth singles change an album's course for the better, I predict that it won't -- there's always her next studio album. The sophomore jinx is a dreaded beast in the world of pop (see Duffy, whose career might never recover from 2010's Endlessly), but it can be overcome (see Nelly Furtado, whose third album, 2006's Loose, brought her back from the brink of commercial disaster that her 2003 second album, Folklore, pushed her to). The more success you have under the belt, the more likely you are to survive a flop if you dare to deliver the next time out.

Consider Beyoncé's current self-titled album, as People's Arnold did. Two years ago, after 2011's 4 merely went platinum and failed to produce any Top 10 pop singles, many were writing off Beyoncé the same way they're writing off Gaga now. But divas from Tina Turner to the ladies of Heart to Madonna to Kylie Minogue to Mariah Carey to Jennifer Lopez to Cher (over and over and over) have weathered career ebbs to emerge more commercially viable than ever, just as Pink did after 2003's brilliant Try This, her own third album, failed to find as significant an audience as its two predecessors.

Fleetwood Mac followed up 1977's Rumours, one of the biggest-selling albums of all-time, with Tusk, a 1979 double album that produced half as many Top 10 hits (two) and only reached No. 4 on Billboard's Top 200 album chart. Between 1977's Saturday Night Fever, another monster of '70s pop, and 1979's Spirits Having Flown, which hit No. 1 and produced three Hot 100 chart-toppers, Bee Gees stumbled pretty badly with 1978's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a flop film with an only modestly successful soundtrack (No. 5, merely platinum and no hit singles).

Ten years later, U2 would follow its own massive career-defining The Joshua Tree with Rattle and Hum, a forgettable fire among U2 albums that now seems like a place holder between Joshua and Achtung Baby. And then there's Britney Spears, whose current album, Britney Jean, is her first official flop. Her two-year engagement at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas might seem like the equivalent of her being shuffled off to the dreaded has-been list, but her sell-out shows make an eventual rebound seem almost like a foregone conclusion. So it's probably too soon to award Gaga a permanent residency on that ignominious list.

If anything, ARTPOP's lack of spectacular chart success means that a year or two from now when Gaga releases her fourth studio album, it won't be quite as eagerly anticipated as albums No. 2 and No. 3 were, and that could very well be a good thing. Nobody was anticipating Beyoncé, which meant Beyoncé was able to release it on iTunes at the stroke of midnight last December 13 when nobody was looking. And look at her now.

Gaga could use the underexposure, whose flipside may, in fact, have helped temporarily do her in. Who knows? Her next multiplatinum phase, if it arrives, might even surprise us all in more ways than one: Maybe, for once and finally, it will just be about the music.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Androgyny Rocks!: Boys Who Sing Like Girls

Adam Levine exudes a certain oily charm (which some might call douchery), but I love at least two things about him that don't involve abs, tattoos or smoldering good looks. First, the Maroon 5 frontman and People magazine's reigning Sexiest Man Alive is not ashamed to wave the rainbow flag and appear on the cover of a gay magazine (Out's September 2011 issue). Second, he's in touch not only with his feminine side but his feminine voice as well.

This past weekend, I watched an episode of The Voice from the current Usher/Shakira season (now airing on South African TV) in which Levine, who's like the demanding Harry Connick Jr. of the panel, attempted to comfort a young male tenor who hadn't gotten any of the coaches/judges to turn around. He said some people say he sings like a girl, too.

In Levine's case, all the way to the bank. Which also has happened to be case for some other male pop and rock acts who weren't ashamed to take it higher when it came to singing their heart out and wearing it on their sleeve... just like a woman.

Foster The People "Coming of Age" I'm still deciding what I think of Supermodel, Foster the People's just-released sophomore album (it improves drastically with repeat listens), but I'll give the attractive boy-band trio this: Despite the album's himbo-friendly title and a few scattered husky vocal turns (on "Goats in Trees" and "The Truth," to name two), frontman Mark Foster's upper vocal register remains his and the band's most-defining characteristic/asset.

White Town "Your Woman" Although the one-man British band didn't exactly sound like a woman, he (as in Jyoti Mishra, aka White Town) adopted a distinctly distaff point of view on this 1997 international smash (No. 1 in the UK and Top 40 in the U.S.) from the album Women in Technology. Then again, it could have been the story of a gay guy breaking up with a bisexual man who was about to swing back the other way. Either way, it was unconventional gender-unspecific pop at its most unforgettable.

Byron Stingily "Get Up (Everybody)" For me, '90s dance music was a woman's world (turned by male DJ's and producers), with the exception of the occasional George Michael reconstruction (namely the Forthright Club Mix of "Spinning the Wheel") and Byron Stingily, the former Ten City vocalist whose three late-'90s No. 1 dance hits included two with connections to Sylvester (see below): "Get Up (Everybody)," which sampled "Dance (Disco Heat)" and a remake of "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)."

Sylvester "Someone Like You" I was too young during Sylvester's disco heyday to fully appreciate late-'70s hits like "Dance (Disco Heat)" and "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," or the strange placement of the latter's parentheses, and pre-video, it never dawned on me to consider that a guy might be singing them. So the first time I actually saw Sylvester perform (via the video for his 1986 single "Someone Like You," released two years before he died from AIDS complications), his androgynous look was just as stunning as his full-on diva vocals.

Bronski Beat & Marc Almond "I Feel Love (Medley)" No, that was no lady (or Donna Summer) singing Summer's 1975 and 1977 disco classics ("Love to Love You Baby" and "I Feel Love," respectively) with Soft Cell frontman Marc Almond on the 1985 No. 3 UK single. It was Jimmy Sommerville, owner of a lonely heart (in song) and arguably the greatest falsetto to come out of the UK in the '80s. He was also the then-lead singer of Bronski Beat and the soon-to-be frontman of The Communards who, like Byron Stingily, once scored a solo hit (No. 5 in the UK in 1990) with a cover of Sylvester's twice-aforementioned "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)."

Crosby, Stills and Nash "Wasted on the Way" I'd never heard of CSN when I first heard the supergroup trio's 1982 Top 10 comeback single, and my first thought was Wow, this new girl group's harmonies are as tight as Bananarama's! "Southern Cross," the Top 20 follow-up, might as well have arrived via another band from another planet, like Mars.

Supertramp "The Logical Song" Is there a '70s classic-rock frontman more underrated than Supertramp's co-lead singer/main songwriter Roger Hodgson, whose stratospheric pitch on "Give a Little Bit," "The Logical Song," "Take the Long Way Home," "It's Raining Again" and others provided such a thrilling vocal counterpoint to Rich Davies' more conventionally masculine delivery as lead vocalist on "Goodbye Stranger" and "My Kind of Lady," among others? How ever did he manage to make it through an entire Supertramp set without passing out?

Prince "I Wanna Be Your Lover" You have to hand it to Prince. I can't think of another superstar who could sing in falsetto, wear suspenders with short shorts, and style his hair in a Farrah Fawcett flip, and still make all the girls go wild.

Nick Gilder "Hot Child in the City" For nearly six years, until Casey Kasem's American Top 40 Yearbook covering 1978 set me straight, I was certain this No. 1 hit was being sung by one hot girl about another.

Styx "Come Sail Away" Say what you will about anonymous '70s and early '80s corporate rock, but rock & roll has produced few lead singers as distinctive as Journey's Steve Perry and Styx's Dennis DeYoung. Compared to them, Foreigner's Lou Gramm could have been just about anyone.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Is It Over Already?!: Thoughts on the Third Season of "Episodes"

Now that I've watched the recently completed nine-episode third season of Episodes (which I did two weekends ago in pretty much one sitting), the time has come to reflect on it, character by character.

But first, two burning questions:

1) Speaking of Episodes' all-American regular and recurring characters (with three exceptions), why are so many of them played by British and Irish actors? From Nashville in Nashville to New York in Revenge to Hollywood in Episodes, the British are coming again (with numerous Aussie allies), and this cross-country invasion is trickier because the troops, for the most part, all talk like Americans.

2) Was it my failing eyesight or did Matt LeBlanc look significantly grayer in the first episode of the season, which began the morning after the night of the season-two finale, than he did in the finale, which aired way back in August of 2012? That must have been some stressful sleep!

Matt LeBlanc
Someone, please, give this guy an Emmy already! It's a testament to Matt LeBlanc's skill (yes skill, and Joey Tribianni remains as indelible as any of the ex-Friends -- if not more so -- because of it) that when I watch Matt LeBlanc playing a character named Matt LeBlanc and based on Matt LeBlanc, I think of Matt LeBlanc the character not as Matt LeBlanc the actor but as a completely different guy who happens to be an actor who costarred for 10 years on an insanely popular TV series named Friends.

LeBlanc plays Matt with shades of Joey, which means he's flawed but still incredibly appealing. (At one point, when he mentioned having worked with Susan Sarandon, I thought of Joey working with an actress played by Sarandon on Friends, not of LeBlanc working with Sarandon on Friends.) Matt has Joey's himbo appeal and the same phrasing (He even gets to say "How you doing?" about halfway through Episodes' third season), but he's sharper, and he has the huge actor's ego that Joey, though also an actor, never really exhibited. My favorite Matt moments this season were actually the non-Joey-quoting ones (it's harder to buy him now as irresistible to women, though Episodes keeps insisting that he still is), the ones in which he was grappling with his waning status in Hollywood, his missed opportunities and his advancing middle age.

There was one scene is which Stoke, a young upstart costar on Pucks, the show-within-the-show, asked Matt for career advice. (Stoke is played by Nashville's Sam Palladio, a Brit, who once again nails a specific American accent.) Stoke had been cast in a Michael Bay action film called Tsunami, and he was being inundated with film offers. His big question: How does he pick the right movie projects so that he doesn't end up being a sitcom star at 50? Naturally, Matt took offense because action-blockbuster directors are no longer knocking on his door (Were they ever?), and how dare that talentless kid call him 50?

It was a telling scene loaded with subtext and suggesting that aging in Hollywood isn't only difficult for women. At 46, Matt (the one on Episodes, that is, not the real-life one) is already considered a has-been. He's barely in what started out as his own show, and adding insult to shame, he had to play second guest to Zac Efron's first guest when he visited Jay Leno's late-night talk show to promote a series that wasn't even featuring him on the promotional poster. LeBlanc brought a certain self-awareness to these scenes that makes Episodes more than a parody of the Hollywood ass-kissing star-making-and-discarding machine. The show, and LeBlanc, find the sad reality as well as the dark humor in the circle of Hollywood life.

Beverly Lincoln
I first saw Tamsin Greig in 2010, onstage in London's West End, opposite Rupert Friend in a play called The Little Dog Laughed. She was funny and memorable, though not necessarily someone I would have pegged as American-TV-star material. Three seasons in, she's grown into her role as one of Pucks' creators, keeping her British accent but losing some of her broad mannerisms and distracting stage tics from the first two seasons. Of all the Episodes characters, she's the one I identify with most. She's a fish out of water trying to make the best of being a stranger in a strange land and failing miserably (not that I have, but I get the feeling).

What I don't understand, though, is how any writer can walk away from a bidding war because she just must leave warm and sunny L.A. and get back to damp and drafty London. I mean, London is my favorite city and everything, but it's not every day, or in every city, that you have all the major networks fighting over a script that had been languishing in your junk pile for years. Who does she think she is? Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks?

Sean Lincoln
I love Greig's chemistry with Stephen Mangan, who plays Beverly's husband and writing partner, Sean, but it sometimes feels a bit more sibling-ish or BFF-ish than marital (sort of like Debra Messing and Christian Borle's co-writing and personal relationship on the now-defunct Smash), making Beverly and Sean's husband-wife connection seem slightly incestuous at times. But that sexual unease made for one of the funniest scenes this season, the one with the sex therapist. When Sean explained why it's hard work being a "top" (not using that word, of course), I wanted to put on a condom and cheer.

Carol Rance
I enjoyed Kathleen Rose Perkins' performances during the first two seasons and immediately recognized her Hollywood type: the good cop who spins everything so that you can never be sure how she really feels about anything. I'm glad they expanded her role in the third season, but I was disappointed that so many of her scenes were with her new boss, Castor Sotto, when I really wanted to see even more of her growing friendship with Beverly.

Perkins wears those form-fitting ensembles so well that it's a shame Carol has been wasted on her far less attractive bosses so far. Might I suggest making her the boss next season (Are you listening, Elliot Salad?) and letting her have a cougar fling with one of Puck's young stars?

Castor Sotto
The third season's only weak link. His crazy shtick might have been funny as a one-episode gag but by the time he was jumping up and down on the conference-room table pitching an anarchic network with one run-on series in which actors were actually shot by actual cops (which was his only funny bit in all of the episodes he appeared in), I was ready for him to be hauled off in a straitjacket. Hopefully, we won't have to see him again next season.

Morning Randolph
I don't know how old Mircea Monroe actually is, but she looks too young to be the mother of a 19 year old. I totally bought her as one, though. I bought her as the sister, too (which is how Morning explained their relationship until Matt slept with the sister/daughter and ruined everything). Sadly, Morning didn't get to do much this season, and she was the butt of the most memorable one-liner, from Matt, who had just done her daughter, to Beverly, who did her brother last season, and Sean, who had slept with Morning twice: "We're just plowing through that family."

Andy Button and Myra Licht
I'm impressed by how Joseph May, a Brit, can get the stereotypical gay American accent just right, but I still don't understand that thing Daisy Haggard (Myra) does with her mouth, nor do I understand what Andy and Myra do for the network. Honestly, I wouldn't miss them if they were gone.

Merc Lapidus
I read on Episodes' Wikipedia page that Thomas Haden Church was supposed to play this character, but I think his urbane charm and sexual energy would have made the dynamic and, by extension, the show, much different. (Perhaps he would have made a Castor Sotto I could have actually enjoyed.) I'm glad they went with John Pankow, Mad About You's cousin Ira, who did desperate and unhinged in season three just as well as he did powerful and smarmy in the first two seasons. Thanks to his deviousness, the Lincolns must return to L.A., and Matt LeBlanc will miss his shot at becoming the next Bryan Cranston, a resurgent middle-aged star of an acclaimed hour-long drama. I'm looking forward to more rounds of ex-NBC star (LeBlanc) vs. ex-NBC star (Pankow), as Merc and Matt continue to wage war in season 4.

Hopefully, they won't make us wait until the summer of 2015!

Monday, March 17, 2014

1979: The Strangest Year in Pop?

Of all the formative years of my conscious youth, which I tend to approximate as being the ones between 1973 (the start of my childhood memories) and 1987 (the year I graduated from high school), two particular years in pop have always stood out as being my favorites: 1978 and 1984.

The former is significant because of all the years in my first full decade on earth, no other saw the release of more singles that I still remember and love. It was also the year covered in one of my favorite books of my formative youth -- Casey Kasem's American Top 40 Yearbook -- which gave it an edge beginning in 1984, when I bought the book. The latter year was the one in which I had a subscription to Billboard magazine (a Christmas of 1983 gift from my mother), so it's pretty safe to say that I didn't miss a single hit that grazed the Hot 100 from January to December.

If I had to pick a year as being my third-favorite formative year in pop (and limiting them only to pop, for if I were to include country, 1980 to 1982 -- the years in which I never skipped a weekly episode of Bob Kingsley's Top 40 country countdown -- would be hands-down my defining period), it would be 1979.

What was the big deal about '79? In some ways, it didn't sound so different from 1978, only I never had a Casey Kasem book to document it. In fact, without the assistance of Kasem, I probably wouldn't be able to tell you which songs belonged to which year. Walter Egan's "Magnet and Steel," ELO's "Shine a Little Love," Alicia Bridges' "I Love the Nightlife," Chic's "Good Times," Nick Gilder's "Hot Child in the City": 1978 or 1979? I didn't discover Billboard until 1980, so my guess would probably have been as good as yours. (By the way, Gilder's chart-topper debuted in 1978, but its hit run actually spanned both years.)

The significance of 1979, I must admit, is mostly in hindsight. I didn't realize what an incredible year it was musically until years later. Those were the last days of disco, but dance music as "disco" didn't mean anything to me at the time because I wasn't old enough to go clubbing. As meaningful "dance music" goes, the mid-'90s rocked the party, my body and, for all I know, probably even the kasbah.

For me, 1979 stands out now for an entirely different reason: It was the year that pop music got kind of weird: Kate Bush's "Wow," ABBA's "Does Your Mother Know" (the only ABBA hit not to feature Frida and Agnetha singing lead), M's "Pop Musik" (new wave's first trip to the top in the U.S.), and side four of Donna Summer's massive Bad Girls album. The year began with Queen's "Bicycle Race" ending its ride and Pretender's "Brass in Pocket" (the first UK No. 1 of the '80s) gaining luster. None qualified as conventional pop at the time. All the singles were Top 20 hits on either or both sides of the pond. Bad Girls was Summer's biggest album ever.

"Wow" Kate Bush

"Pop Musik" M

"Lucky" Donna Summer

The proof is also in three other big albums that year: Bee Gees' Spirits Having Flown, Supertramp's Breakfast in America and Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. Each came from a band of non-American origin (pre-Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac began its lifespan as a '60s British blues-rock outfit), each produced three Top 20 hits (all of which, in the case of Bees Gees, made it to No. 1), and each contained title tracks that would rank among the strangest ones to come from a major mainstream pop/rock album that year, or any year. "Tusk" was the only one that was a Top 10 single, and it came from the only one of the three that didn't top Billboard's Top 200 album chart. (It peaked at No. 4.)

All these years later -- 35 to be exact -- they're all still in heavy rotation on my iPod. The last few years, which have produced some of the most predictable mainstream pop of my lifetime, courtesy of the likes of Katy Perry, Bruno Mars and Pitbull, could learn a lot from 1979.

"Breakfast in America" Supertramp

"Tusk" Fleetwood Mac

"Spirits (Having Flown)" Bee Gees

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Missing Links: Going Out in the Middle Ages, Big Black Men, and More...

For those who have noticed that I've been MIA for the last few days and blogging less frequently than usual these past couple of weeks, I have some explaining to do. It's not that I haven't been writing. It's that I've been doing so much of it elsewhere, namely for HuffPost Gay Voices blog, where I am now a regular contributor, and also for and Mad World, a new blog for the forthcoming book Mad World: An Oral History of the New Wave Artists and Songs that Defined the 1980s, which was co-written by my best friend, Lori Majewski.

Here are links to them:

Somebody Else's Guy: Sex and the Not-So-Single Guy (HuffPost Gay Voices)

The Roaring Gay 30s and 40s: Am I Too Old to Love the Nightlife? (HuffPost Gay Voices)

Op-Ed: How the Mythical Big Black Man Killed Romance Abroad (

Friday Face-Off: Adam and the Ants, the Police, OMD and... Ronnie Milsap (Mad World)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Most Meaningless Recurring Lyrics in Pop Music

"Na na na na na na na na na na na"
- Lily Allen, "Air Balloon"

Huh? Na na na na what?

Modern mainstream pop doesn't get much catchier than Lily Allen's latest single (she's like a British Katy Perry, only better), but just what is she trying to say at the end of the chorus? Your guess is as good as mine. When the song is over, though, what's the first thing that pops into your head?

Yeah, right: Na na na na na...

No wonder "na na na..." has been, for decades, one of the lyrical refrains most likely to pop up in a pop song, perhaps second only to "I love you," and not to be confused with the equally insanely popular "la la la..." It's sort of the pop equivalent of the jazz scat, only it hardly requires any vocal virtuosity, which might be why it gets less respect than "De do do do de da da da" (from The Police's 1980 hit of the same name), "Mmm mmm mmm mmm" (from Crash Test Dummies' 1993 one hit wonder of the same name) or the choruses of J. Geils Band's "I Do" (1982) and Pat Benatar's "Ooh Ooh Song" (from 1985).

That doesn't mean the "la la la..." and "na na na..." treatment is wasted on bad songs. Listen (and read) on...

"Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)" Al Green But then, he can make anything sound like poetry.

"Take a Chance on Me" ABBA Of course, ABBA had to go there at some point, trading "L" and "N" for "B" and making it "ba ba ba ba ba..." on the quartet's 1978 No. 3 single (and second-biggest U.S. hit). Was that the Swedish translation?

"The Matador" Sylvia For those who thought country music was just about beer, heartache and trucks, Syvia's 1981 pre-"Nobody" Top 10 hit added love at the bullfight and a "na na na na na na na na..." coda to the genre's lyrical repertoire.

"It's Raining Again" Supertramp Love can build a bridge, and so can a melodica solo followed by one more round of "la la la la la la...."

"Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" Bananarama A song with a "na na na na" refrain so undeniably catchy that not only did it become a hit at least three times (via Steam's 1969 original, Bananarama's 1983 cover and The Nylons' 1987 remake), but it also provided the basis of an enduring sports chant.

"La La Love You" Pixies Alternative rock gets into the "la la" act (on Pixies' 1989 classic Doolittle album).

"Let Me Love You" Peter Murphy And so does the Godfather of Goth Rock (on 1992's Holy Smoke).

"Can't Get You Out of My Head" Kylie Minogue The Aussie Madonna's penultimate UK chart-topper (as of this moment) sounds even better today than it did the first time I heard it at a Teen People Pink photo shoot in 2001, and that's in no small part due to that "la la la..." intro.

"Nah!" Shania Twain What she meant to say (sing) was "No," but the sound effect was basically the same.

"Air Balloon" Lily Allen You've got to give Allen props for working Miami, Timbuktu, Kurt Cobain, Elvis Presley, an uncle with a monkey that ran away from the zoo, and "na na na na..." into the second great pop single of 2014 (after Beyoncé's lyrically literal "Partition").