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>The Index – You Keep Me Hanging On

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Written by alexgfrank

May 16, 2010 at 4:38 pm

>the REAL news story today

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when did everyone become more insane than me? they’ve lost they damn mind. and who is that crazy dude in the bow tie?

Written by alexgfrank

September 16, 2009 at 6:28 pm

>Mother of the King of Pop

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>From Ernest Hardy’s obit of Michael, a bit about Diana Ross’s massive influence on Michael:

” Curiously absent from the praise and aesthetic roll-call being put forth for Mike is one name: Diana Ross. His obsession with and emulation of her are well documented but she’s not being cited in the obits. It’s a glaring and telling omission that has much to do with the low critical regard in which Ross is held, and the reluctance of critics to own up to not just the deep influence that diva Ross had on boy wonder Jackson, but on the ways in which her persona and performing style play out in his style. Here’s what I wrote about Diana and her artistic spawn, Michael, in my 2006 essay, “Diana Ross: OG Diva Sings the Blues”:

“It’s well known that Mike studied James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr. and a host of other captivating male singers in order to perfect his showmanship. His idol-worship of Diana Ross has been reduced to snickering speculation on his sexuality and sanity. In truth, Jackson simply spotted in Ross a kindred spirit — someone born to the stage, someone who is without peer when inspiration strikes. He recognized a fellow artist.””

Anyone that knows me knows that I think Diana Ross is probably the single most influential female pop star of the second half of the 20th century because, in my eyes, she set the standards of female, and as Hardy points out, male POP-ness. Her use of self reinvention, in fact her use of HERSELF as part of her musical appeal, set the standard for Madonna and everyone that has followed since. Her pre-Warholian understanding of celebrity’s importance to 20th century art, and her shrewd choices, alternating between making the right choices AND choosing the right people around you to make choices for you, adds up, for me, to making her singularly important and equally unappreciated. And that malarkey about Florence Ballard having a “better” voice than her is rightly ripped to shreds in Ernest Hardy’s great piece about Diana for LA Weekly.

But to get back to Hardy’s obit about Michael, the fact that he places Michael in a female-headed lineage with Ross is absolutely right on. For one, Diana’s apt use of slightly campy melodrama in her music (“Love is Here and Now You’re Gone”, “You Keep Me Hanging On”) is the influence behind that strange seriousness and earnestness that invades many of Michael’s songs, like “Beat It” and “Bad”. That is just one of many detailed, specific stylistic similarities between the two.

But in general, Michael’s almost mechanical pursuit of number one records is right out of the Ross handbook. Ever notice how Michael liked formulas in his music? If something was a hit, his attempt to follow that lead into the next number one, to put his finger into the well of popular music and produce a stylized, and often better, copy of what he hears was Ross’s strategy from almost the very beginning. Its how she was trained. And its how she trained him. You could say many try to do that, but there’s something similar in the ways in which Michael and Diana blend black and white sounds, black and white theatricalities to produce “hits”. And that’s the point: both Michael and Diana were unafraid to learn from a bevy of traditions, from Broadway to Blues to Funk to Pop to Country. They understood that entertainers can be most effective, most successful, tapping into as many veins of our collective cultural memory as possible. They are palatable versions of the brash personalities that came before them.

And that they were both show(wo)men true and true, Judy Garland meets pop and R&B, is their legacy. Their attention to each hand wave, each rhinestone, their ability to treat the pop stage like it was a Broadway theatre puts them in a category all their own, and in my estimation, has been unmatched. Try to pin a genre on either of them and all you’ll come up with is Pop. Not Pop in sound (though they are often Pop in sound), but Pop in ideology, Pop in the sense that they are uniquely blended entertainers, the result of the great mash-up experiment of the 20th century, a production of what is “American” in sound, look, and movement. This is the music of celebrity. They incorporate all the fixed identities of stars before them and turn them into a morphing, malleable, transparent, vacant product that is general enough to mean something to everyone and specific enough to become personal for the very same people.

Then there is their incessant restructuring of gender and race in their time periods. At the time criticized for it, Diana Ross brought black and white together, the first in a long string of black women that would become as famous as Coca-Cola. And she did it by showing the utter glamour and seriouness of her femininity. Never sexy enough to be a sex symbol, nor staid enough to be matronly, Diana Ross has as much to do with the idea black female professionalism as anyone else. I could go on and on about this, and I have much less to say about Michael. Whether or not he accomplished similar feats of gender and race fucking is not a question for me to answer. That he pursued it, I think, so fervently, is what’s important to my argument. Diana Ross was a black, female role model to him, an emblem of what a proud entertainer could do to the world. A symbol of ambition and black, gendered exceptionalism, the power that marginalized figures have when they utilize what is most marginal about them. That wearing a certain type of dress, wearing a certain type of hairstyle, dancing a certain dance, and singing a certain song could quite forcefully change the world is Diana Ross’s lesson to Michael, and he paid attention.

And lets not even talk about the voice. That flinty, high, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O glamour pout isn’t as obvious in Michael ONLY because he’s a man, but its there if you listen for it. The only question that I guess I’ll ask: will the media make such a deal of the black community reclaiming Diana Ross when she dies as they have when Michael does? I guess it’s different.

Written by alexgfrank

July 2, 2009 at 1:32 am

>I’m Coming Out

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Diana @ Diane Von Furstenberg

Written by alexgfrank

February 17, 2009 at 6:59 pm

>Cat (last) breath

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>Some choice quotes from The New York Times’ obituary on Eartha Kitt, who died today:

” Though her record sales fell after the rise of rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll in the mid- and late ’50s, her singing style would later be the template for other singers with small-but-sensual voices like Diana Ross (who has said she patterned her Supremes sound and look largely after Ms. Kitt), Janet Jackson and Madonna, who recorded a cover version of “Santa Baby” in 1987.”

From practically the beginning of her career, as critics gushed over Ms. Kitt, they also began to describe her in every feline term imaginable: her voice “purred” or “was like catnip”; she was a “sex kitten” who “slinked” or was “on the prowl” across the stage, sometimes “flashing her claws.” Her career has often been said to have had “nine lives.” Appropriately enough, she was tapped to play Catwoman in the 1960s TV series “Batman,” taking over the role from the leggier, lynxlike Julie Newmar and bringing to it a more feral, compact energy.

In 1968 she was invited to a White House luncheon and was asked by Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War. She replied: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.” The remark reportedly caused Mrs. Johnson to burst into tears and led to the only derailment in Ms. Kitt’s career.

“I’m a dirt person,” she told Ebony magazine in 1993. “I trust the dirt. I don’t trust diamonds and gold.”

Written by alexgfrank

December 26, 2008 at 1:34 am

>Hot (pants) topic

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You’d have a hard time convincing me that the 1960’s/1970’s female performance art and the pop performance of the Supremes are all that different in artistic value. I’m not arguing that they are all feminist in the same way, I’m not even arguing that any of them are feminist necessarily at all (though I do think they all are), but rather I think that the ways in which women stood on a stage and used their body, clothing, and hair to reshape understandings about femininity was so powerful in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and whether one person did it on a TV set to sell albums or one did it in a gallery, the point is that the 1960’s and 1970’s were reshaped by female public performance. Oprah and Madonna could not exist today as they are without the groundwork of Diana Ross and her constant media reinvention and careful attention to self-presentation, but I think those media powerhouses are equally indebted to Eleanor Antin, Yoko Ono, and Carolee Schneeman, who used body to communicate politics, as both Oprah and Madonna have done. So more traditional forms of capitalist, pop presentation meshs well with the more “radical”. This implicates the non-artist as well – girls who threw on mini-skirts, cut their hair were engaging in a sort of performance art, in my estimation. Certainly cutting your hair into a pixie or hiking up your skirt would ellicit an audience reaction, of sorts, in the mid-60’s, whether from a husband or a school or a parent.

Written by alexgfrank

December 8, 2008 at 7:41 pm

>Notown Records

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>Brenda Holloway has probably one of my very favorite soul/pop songs of the early 60’s, “When I’m Gone”, but it only hit #25 on the top 100. Her voice was sweet like Mary Wells and Diana Ross, but had an edge, like Martha Reeves. “When I’m Gone” is tense because she transitions from soft to hard at key moments – a technique all smart girls should know. Girl wrote her own songs, showed her nana’s on album covers, and played with the Beatles at their big Shea Stadium concert, but she wasn’t a real hit. What does it take in this country to make it big? Bitch, I salute you no matter what. Maybe Motown stifled her with a lack of promotion, highlighted in this article:

Brenda Holloway says “Motown didn’t believe a woman could cut it alone, but if I got a male co-writer it was alright!”

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“I was very sexy at the time. My skin couldn’t breathe unless it was exposed! My costumes were made for sex appeal not for women. In fact women wanted to pull me off that stage and knock my teeth out because they thought I was flirting with their men. I was influenced by Tina Turner. But when I was touring the Southern states, trying to be like Tina, Smokey Robinson told me not to do it again. He said “You have a voice, you don’t need to act like her”. So I tried to tone down by act, but it didn’t work for me”. Brenda Holloways’ decision to leave Motown stemmed from frustration “I just walked out. I was actually in the middle of a recording session with Smokey Robinson, when I ran away to L.A. He later called me there and I told him I didn’t want to be with Motown anymore. There was no future there for me because there was a long span when I was doing nothing. Then when Gladys Knight came in to do my songs that was the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

Written by alexgfrank

December 3, 2008 at 5:44 pm