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Friday, August 24, 2012

Divas You May Have Missed...

One of the joys of summer is having the time to catch-up on things you missed during the rest of the year, whether it's repeats on TV, that pile of magazines or those CDs you haven't listened to yet. So while I enjoy a couple of weeks' holiday/vacation, here's your chance to catch up on those Divas I have blogged you may not yet have had to chance to explore. I'm really grateful that people have taken the time to read this blog and to respond so positively. I've loved writing it and can't believe it's been six months already. I've just welcomed my 10,000th reader, which seems both unbelievable and exciting. Do come back for a brand new blog on Friday 7 September, but in the meantime why not try...

My Most Popular Divas!

Who really knows why some things are bigger hits than others? For whatever reason these are my top five blogs so far:

Sharing my best Chaka Khan performances [That Chaka Moment]

Hailing the new Queen of Country [The New Queen of Country: Carrie Underwood]

Celebrating Kylie's Silver Jubilee [Impossible Princess: Kylie's Silver Jubilee]

Proving Ms Streisand did it all first [Barbra Did It First]

Marvelling at Pet Shop Boys' greatest diva guest stars [Pet Shop Divas]

Dearly Departed Divas!

It all started with the tragic loss of Whitney, they may be gone, but never forgotten:

Whitney's finest moments [Remembering Whitney]

Discovering the impact Donna Summer had on me [Remembering Donna Summer]

Remembering Kirsty MacColl at her very best [Still Life: Remembering Kirsty MacColl]

Unsung Divas!

There are some truly gifted divas out there that don't get the attention they deserve. I will do all I can to put that right:

The truly glorious Julia Fordham deserves your full attention [UnSung Heroine: The Julia Fordham Story]

She may have retired from singing, but Helen Terry's classic solo album needs to be heard [Love Lies Lost: Revisiting Helen Terry]

My Ultimate Diva!

It's probably obvious by the fact she's had four blogs to herself, but for me there's nobody quite like Kate Bush:

Here's my review of her reworked classics on Director's Cut [Unfinished Business: Kate Bush, Director's Cut]

And my epic three-parter on the evolution of her songwriting:

Early years (Pre The Kick Inside to Never For Ever) [The Craft Of Love: Part One]

The Golden Age (The Dreaming to The Red Shoes) [This Woman's Work: Part Two]

The Second Coming (Aerial to 50 Words For Snow) [Deeper Understanding: Part Three]

The Best of the Rest!

I have a pretty eclectic taste in music and a true passion for voices, which hopefully explains how I come to have so many favourite artists! Trust me, I've only scratched the surface. Here are some of my other besties:

My first love was ABBA and my first heartbreak when they split [When All Is Said And Done: ABBA, The Visitors]

Burt Bacharach is a genius and his greatest muse is the incomparable Dionne [Golden Legacy: Dionne, Burt & Hal]

My most recent obsession and Burt's latest muse is the wonderful Rumer [Rumer Has It]

An earlier obsession was this iconic album from Sade [Diamond Life: the arrival of Sade Adu]

If Kate didn't exist (shudder), then Carly would be my number one [Nobody Does It Better: Carly Simon's Movie Songs]

One of the best voices on the planet fully emerged with this classic album [Ingénue: the arrival of k.d. lang]

I love musical theatre (surprise!) and Wicked is my all time favourite [The Elphabas: Wicked's Leading Ladies]

So you won't be shocked that I also love Glee [Class of 2012: Graduating Gleevas!]

So that should keep you going for now. See you in two weeks!

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Savage: Annie Lennox's Darkest Hour

Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, together known as Eurythmics, were undoubtedly the most prolific popstars in the 1980s, they managed to record seven studio albums between 1981 and 1989, as well as a soundtrack album and four major world tours. By 1987 they were riding the wave of huge commercial success and stadium adulation, yet their next album would be borne out of near exhaustion and the first cracks in their usually close working relationship. Instead of working together on material in their normal manner, Dave recorded most of the music for their sixth album and handed it to Annie on cassette. At first she couldn't connect with what she heard, until finally "an explosion of words and creativity" helped Annie shape the dark, complex and totally brilliant Savage.

Anyone only familiar with Eurythmics' singles might mistakenly think they were a distinctly commercial act, but anyone who has heard their albums, particularly their early ones, knows they are among the most experimental and creative forces British pop has produced. Those expecting Savage to be filled with radio-friendly ditties and stadium rockers no doubt had a rude awakening when they heard the first single. Beethoven (I Love To Listen To) hits like a fever dream, slapping the listener across the face, then grabbing them by the shoulders and giving them a good shake. It begins with a thumping beat, then the chorus is slowly built up from its constituent parts. Suddenly we are engaged in conversation with a woman who is sharing her innermost thoughts, moving from stranger to lover as her paranoia emerges. You realise the splintered voices all belong to the same woman who is becoming increasingly unhinged. A burst of laughter mid-song is perhaps the most unsettling moment in any pop song ever. You start looking over your shoulder to check Annie's not creeping up behind you. It is without doubt the weirdest and most wonderful pop single ever made.

To accompany the album, Eurythmics asked Sophie Muller to make a video album (remember them) and the film for Beethoven (I Love To Listen To) is as striking and sublime as the song. Annie starts off as a suburban housewife with a brown shoulder-length bob, blousy and repressed, and we see her tormented by a young blonde girl who undoes the housework she is frantically doing. At her breaking point Annie seems to allow the young demon child to take possession of her and she transforms into a similarly blonde temptress, all torn tights and PVC dress, who struts out of the house and off into town. Annie's performance is totally compelling and underlines her acting skills as she completely inhabits both housewife and seductress. If you've never seen it, head over to YouTube right now. Amazing, isn't it?

The mixed emotions that Annie and Dave apparently felt about success and its physical and mental toll is apparent on the deceptively jolly Do You Want To Break Up? Although the song is no doubt about a fictional couple, on some level it feels like Annie is challenging Dave about the future of the band, with the stark lyrics contrasted against a bouncy sing-a-long melody. Despite tasting success in their previous band The Tourists when their cover of Dusty Springfield's I Only Want To Be With You made the top ten, little could have prepared Annie for the tidal wave of fame she would ride after their breakthrough hit Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) thrust Annie's voice and image centre stage. Annie has said that when she performs she wears a mask and she did this quite literally early on. Her shock of red hair and her teasing androgyny ensured Annie became the poster child for cutting edge female artists in the MTV Age.

Like many artists, Annie has suffered through periods of emotional fragility and has been able to channel that into her music. Non-stop recording and touring for six years would challenge the most robust person and it is clear to read on Savage that this period of über-fame had left Annie with some things to get off her chest. This alchemical ability to change darkness to beauty is realised most staggeringly on You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart, my favourite Eurythmics song and among the most genuinely heartaching songs ever written. Annie decodes love, listing its facets, from the spiritual to the everyday reality and sets out clearly what love has cost her. She finds the strength to leave that love behind and in the analysis realises all she really wants is someone to hold. It is stark and haunting and Annie's vocal is at times imperial, at others aching; the way she breaks the song down in its final moments requires a standing ovation. Sophie Muller produced yet another stunning video with Annie again inhabiting the housewife character, this time having a meltdown in a supermarket, while "real" Annie is lost in the desert, seeking her soulmate. When released as the final single from the album it deservedly became its biggest hit and is still part of Annie's live repertoire.

The album's second single, Shame, faltered just outside the top 40, which seems impossible given it is by far the most radio-friendly track on the album. It must have suffered the aftershock from the mainstream audience reaction to its predecessor. The song pours scorn on those that see love as a passing fashion, it should really have been played at Kim Kardashian's wedding. Again it disguises a dark message within a glorious upbeat melody, it really is the Eurythmic's mega-hit that got away.

Annie's blonde seductress alter-ego gets her big break on the album's true anthem, the raucous I Need A Man. At face value this may seem to be a simple plea for a honest-to-goodness, red-blooded hunk of a man to satisfy Annie's pressing needs and indeed it is available to enjoy on that level. I like to think though that given Annie's approach to gender as an artist, there is something else going on here. Annie's over-sexualised, almost drag look on the single sleeve and in another stunning video provides a visual counterpart to this idealised macho man, the super-femme woman. It's also clear from the blistering bridge that Annie's needs are beyond a basic Y chromosome. The man Annie needs doesn't play games, isn't obsessed with money, won't cheat on her and is courageous. In other words this song isn't about sex or gender roles at all, it's about honesty. That said, who doesn't love to play the vamp and sing along to this one at home. Oh, just me then? I believe you.

The album ends with two songs that sit at opposite ends of the spectrum. The awesome acoustic I Need You comes as blast of fresh, if freezing air after the electronic complexity of the rest of the album. Annie's lyrics are the harshest she has ever written: "I need you to really feel the twist of my back breaking, I need someone to listen to the ecstasy I'm faking". She takes the trite lovers' plea "I need you" and twists it beyond recognition. The laughter of the crowd as Annie bares her soul is deeply troubling. After all the trials Annie has submitted herself to on the album, it feels as if the darkness has won. Then, like a shining light the album closer Brand New Day arrives to rescue her (and us). There is hope at the end of this tunnel and Annie steps out into the rising sunlight to welcome it. The song starts a capella, gradually giving way to a twinkling, shiny resolution. Having lead us through the darkness, Dave and Annie safely return us to the light.

Savage may not be the most commercially successful Eurythmic's album, but it is their artistic triumph. Although not a true concept piece, despite the attempts at narrative in the video album, there is the sense of a clear journey being taken here, a working out of issues and a resolution found. The songs may not always provide instant gratification, but dedication is rewarded with a richness of experience and a longevity that few pop albums accomplish. Annie was channelling some particularly strong demons on this album and expressed them vocally and visually in a way she has never bettered in my opinion. This may have been a band at the point of exhaustion, but it is also a band at the height of their creative powers. Savage (I Love To Listen To).

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Friday, August 10, 2012

Fairground Stripper? Elton vs Madonna

Now I love a celebrity feud as much as the next man, but there's something distinctly unedifying about the latest attack in the long-running Elton John and Madonna stand-off. For history buffs, you may recall this goes back as far as November 2002 when Elton slammed Madonna's Bond theme for Die Another Day, calling it tuneless and "the worst Bond tune ever". Now I might have room for agreement there with Elton, but I'll save that for my inevitable Bond theme blog. What was strange was why he felt the need to weigh in while proclaiming himself a big Madonna fan, but then Elton has often considered himself one of music's leading critics. The next major spat came two years later at the Q Awards in London during Elton's acceptance speech for the Classic Songwriter Award. Again without apparent provocation he blasted Madonna's nomination in the Best Live Act category claiming she lip-synced her entire show and that "anyone who lip-syncs in public on stage when you pay £75 to see them should be shot". So no over-reaction there then. Madonna's spokesperson retaliated on her behalf, pointing out that "Madonna does not lip-sync nor does she spend her time trashing other artists. She sang every note of her Re-Invention tour live and is not ashamed that she was well paid for her hard work". Elton later backtracked a bit, but then seemed surprised that Madonna refused his invitation to perform at his bachelor party in 2005, prompting him to call her a "miserable cow".

The latest bad blood seems to stem from Madonna's triumph in the 2012 Golden Globe Awards, when her song Masterpiece from her film W.E. won over Elton's ditty from Gnomeo and Juliet. Elton's partner David Furnish took over the attack, claiming Madonna's win showed the awards had nothing to do with merit and calling her acceptance speech narcissistic. Furnish later kind of apologised, but Madonna again kept to the high ground, saying of Elton "he's been known to get mad at me, so I don't know. He's brilliant, and I adore him, so he'll win another award. I don't feel bad". That brings us to the latest bout, when in an Australian TV interview Elton again issued forth with this charming tirade when Madonna's name was mentioned, "she’s such a nightmare. Her career’s over...and she looks like a f***ing fairground stripper. She’s been so horrible to Gaga". The latter reference no doubt relating to Madonna's recent comments about the similarity between Lady Gaga's Born This Way and her own hit Express Yourself, a controversy I covered in an earlier blog [The New Queen Of Pop?]. Again Madonna has decided not to respond, leaving it to her fans to leap to her defence. Now far be it from me to get in between such a major catfight, but whatever the provocation behind Elton's attacks, there are a couple of his claims that I take issue with. So while not an official Madonna spokesperson, here is how I would respond to Elton's attacks.

"Madonna does not sing live"

I have been lucky enough to witness Madonna live many times and I have only missed two of her world tours. She is without doubt a brilliant live performer and she ensures her shows are chock full of visual delights, while also using the live arena as an opportunity to recreate many of her classic hits in surprising ways. Madonna expends Olympic levels of energy when performing and engages in complex and cutting edge dance routines that would tax any professional dancer. Let's face it, she pretty much invented the template for the stadium age of live pop shows and Kylie, Janet, Beyoncé and co. all follow in her wake. I'm pretty good at spotting a lip-sync, as a fan of vocalists I know when there is actual sound emanating from a mouth or when it's fakery. I have never detected Madonna miming in her live shows, in fact I am often in awe at her breath control and recovery that enables her to sing and dance the way she does, but then I guess that's what daily yoga and gym work gets you. Yes Elton, it is important for stars to sing live when an audience has paid for that experience and I daresay it's a lot easier to achieve sitting behind a piano than it is performing gymnastics on a studded leather S&M carousel horse, but somehow Madonna manages it.

"She looks like a fairground stripper"

Now I don't know what fairgrounds Elton hangs out at, but I've yet to encounter one that offers strippers. That aside we can assume that his issue is that Madonna, as a woman in her fifties, still wears stage outfits that are overtly sexual. Madonna has always used sexuality as a central theme in her work, that is neither new nor particularly surprising. What is unusual is that Madonna has managed to maintain a pop career for three decades and remain relevant and commercially successful, so she is now challenging cultural stereotypes of what a fifty-year old woman should look like. Determining what is attractive is a highly personal matter, but I take issue when Madonna is attacked on her looks and image purely based on chronology. While as a culture we like women to quietly disappear in middle age, Madonna is at the forefront of challenging the boundaries of what is permissible for women as they age. Can Elton seriously criticise Madonna's attire while simultaneously leaping to the defense of Lady Gaga? Why is it acceptable for Gaga to run around in her underwear, but Madonna is called a stripper when she dares to bare any flesh? The fact is that Madonna's stage outfits for her latest tour are not that provocative by her standards, but they are recognisably Madonna, an image and icon she has worked hard to establish. What should she perform in to make Elton happy? A smock? A nice woolly and an A-line skirt? Madonna has earned the right to wear what she damn well pleases and if Elton doesn't like it, he can always take a trip to the fairground instead.

"Her career is over"

This one doesn't really need much of a response. Madonna's latest album MDNA topped the charts in the US and the UK and many other countries. Her half-time show at this year's Super Bowl set a TV audience record, with 114 million tuning in. Madonna is using her current World Tour to raise awareness of a number of issues around freedom and equality, gaining headlines and attention to some of the most serious social concerns facing us as a human race. So Elton, what have you done for me lately?

I'm pleased Madonna has continued to maintain a dignified silence in the face of Elton's frequent taunts. As she said, she doesn't really need to attack fellow artists to get publicity. Perhaps one day Elton will be able to make the same claim.

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Friday, August 3, 2012

Olympic Divas!

I love the Olympic Games! Once every four years I can get obsessed about a wide variety of sports I barely knew existed, unleash my inner patriot and become an armchair expert in the finer points of gymnastic scoring. Aside from this great event my sporting interest is usually limited to two weeks a year on the lawns of the All England Club. Another reason to love the Olympics is of course the amazing Opening and Closing ceremonies, where the host nation looks to display its cultural supremacy to the rest of the world. Musically speaking, the London Games has been a little male-centric so far, but I'm hopeful (if the rumours are true) that this will be rebalanced for the closing moments. Some of the world's greatest female singers have contributed moments of magic for previous Games, so here are my top five picks of the Olympic Divas.

Whitney Houston - One Moment In Time (1988, Seoul)

Given we now know how the story ends, it is sometimes hard to remember that for almost a decade Whitney Houston was the world's biggest female star. I've already discussed her legacy in my debut blog [Remembering Whitney], and how at the peak of her fame Whitney recorded a song for the 1988 Summer Olympics. The spirit of the Olympics is a belief that the taking part is as important as winning. That might be true for some nations, but not the USA, where they go to win and win big. Whitney's anthem, One Moment In Time, succeeds in the challenge of capturing that spirit of competition and the supreme dedication required to be an Olympic athlete, but is really about how good it feels to win. Whitney certainly gives it her all and would have unquestionably taken the Gold medal if vocal gymnastics was an event in the 1988 Games. Like any good anthem this has multiple crescendos and endless bombast. It has managed to outlive its use as an Olympic theme and gone on to become a regular feature at major sporting events, undoubtedly due to Whitney's incredible vocal performance. If Whitney can teach us anything, it is to seize those shining moments, because they will fade all too soon.

Freddie Mercury & Montserrat Caballé - Barcelona (1992, Barcelona)

Like many gay men, Freddie Mercury was obsessed with opera divas and one of his favourites was the legendary Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé. They met in early 1987 and when called upon to contribute a song for the Barcelona Olympics, Montserrat approached Freddie for assistance. Seizing the chance to work with his idol, Freddie and Montserrat ended up recording an entire album together, which included the romantic, sweeping love song Barcelona. It has one of the most thrilling openings of any pop song ever and Freddie uses every trick in the book to create moments of grandeur and drama. Freddie's rich voice mixes remarkably well with Montserrat's world class operatics. It is a rare crossover success between the perfection of opera and the cheap thrills of pop music, not least because Freddie gives Montserrat ample opportunity to shine. Her performance is riveting and there are moments that are so beautiful they take your breath away. Even operaphobes have to appreciate the incredible power and majesty of her voice and the way that operatic singing can flick switches in your brain and cause all manner of involuntary body movements. The song just works as an Olympic anthem, as a love story and as an ode to that wonderful Catalan jewel of a city. One of the all-time greatest duets and a fitting theme for a world-class event. Sadly Freddie didn't live to see his theme conquer the world during the Games, but it stands as a fitting tribute to his eclectic and unique talents.

Sarah Brightman & José Carreras - Amigos Para Siempre (1992, Barcelona)

Not content with one theme, the Barcelona Games called upon Andrew Lloyd-Webber to create a second theme (seriously, are there no Spanish composers?). He teamed up with lyricist Don Black to create Amigos Para Siempre (Friends For Life), another duet, this time performed by his very recently ex-wife (awkward), the popera soprana Sarah Brightman and the renowned tenor José Carreras. It lacks some of the drama of Freddie and Montserrat's epic, but it has a gentle lilting quality that makes it perfect for a sunny summer evening in a stadium. Sarah is occasionally outsung by José, but she digs in and holds her own and eventually outblasts him with her stunning final note. I'm old enough to remember Sarah as a Starship Trooper, so I will always hold a candle for her. She also has a pretty good set of lungs and her reinvention as a crossover classical diva has been spectacularly realised. There are precious few songs that speak about the strong love that friends can feel for each other, that can be just as deep and meaningful as romantic love (and often lasts a lot longer). For that reason alone I would love this song, but as it also contains multiple crescendos and castanets, it has a reserved place in my personal hall of fame.

Gloria Estefan - Reach (1996, Atlanta)

Bit cheeky this one, basically Gloria Estefan and Diane Warren got together and rewrote One Moment In Time, called it Reach and passed it off as the theme for the 1996 Atlanta Games. Of course my tongue is firmly in my cheek, if you're writing an Olympics song, then you pretty much have to talk about striving for your goals and having that one special moment in your life. Besides, I adore Gloria and worship Diane (I really must get around to blogging about them), so I would never dare to suggest they were plagiarists. Reach is actually rather good, not overly dramatic and what we in the trade refer to as a "grower". Gloria is in good voice and adds some much needed earnestness to the lyrics, which could easily sound trite in a lesser performer's hands. It is perhaps not the most memorable song, but in the rarefied leagues of Olympic themes it is a definite medallist. Perhaps the bronze though this time.

Björk - Oceania (2004, Athens)

Thank heavens for Björk. In a world filled with sound-a-likes and two-dimensional talents, she continues to carve her own unique path through pop. She is perhaps a surprising choice to contribute a song for the Olympics, but Björk's performance at the Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Athens Games is without doubt one of my lasting Olympic memories. If you didn't see it, try and track it down on YouTube, as my attempts to describe it could never do it justice. Suffice it to say that she ends up wearing a very large dress! Oceania has all the best qualities of a classic Björk song, it is intricate, complex and beautiful. Like the rest of her album Medúlla, it only uses human voices for instruments, with Oceania featuring a London choir and the beatboxer Shlomo. It goes to show that Olympic themes don't have to be just about reaching goals and lasting friendships, they can also celebrate individuality and creativity that is simply out of this world.

? - ? (2012, London)

So what will be the stand out diva moment of the 2012 Games? Come on London, don't let me down. Please don't allow my lasting musical memory of my home Games to be Paul McCartney croaking out Hey Jude. We have some of the finest female musical talent in the world, let's show it off. And no, I'm not talking about Victoria Beckham. I'll be watching...

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts at or follow me on Twitter. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link:Olympic Divas