Out From Under: On Britney & Bottoming Out

1346878696_britneyspearsvids-circus-640.jpg

Every meltdown needs a soundtrack. Every extra shitty life moment needs a theme song. Most of the time, we don’t get to pick these songs or the albums. They pick us simply by being played while everything comes crashing down. For me, the album that will forever be associated with my own person shit storm in 2008 is Circus by Britney Spears.

Call it prophetic timing. Chalk it up to gayness. Or simply write it off to the magical powers of pop divas. But the sixth album by Britney Spears came out right as things were about to get really fucking real for me. Remembered 9 years later primarily for the hit single “Womanizer” and it’s wig swapping video, Circus falls firmly in the Comeback Era of our Lord and Savior Britney Spears. Having had her own terrible times in 2007, Britney was experiencing a renaissance. Less crazy, more energetic and presumably on a better combination of psych meds, Britney was doing all of the morning shows that fall. The word on the street was “It’s Britney, bitch and she’s back!” Couple this with the ushering in of the Obama era, things looked like they were turning around in America. Well, for everybody but me.

While Britney was cracking whips and wearing sexy ringmaster outfits on Good Morning America, yours truly was having cocaine induced panic attacks in the hallway of the apartment that he was days away from getting evicted from. It’s hard not to notice the juxtaposition of Britney’s upbeat, pop confection of a record, which I was listening to non-stop while my own life events were closer to the kind of circus with sad, drunk clowns and abused animals. Now, anyone who knows me knows that music is a huge part of my life and I’m not some top 40 devotee who slurps up all populist crap. The opposite actually.

As a former record store employee and DJ, I’m a music snob and a half. Go ahead and  mansplain me on the topics of sports and home improvement but I will unequivocally smoke your ass when it comes to knowledge of music and pop culture. This is a fact. I proudly turn my nose up at overrated sensitive dude singers, pride myself on loving bands before anyone else did and enjoy seeking out weird old shit. That said, I have a soft spot for brain-rotting cotton candy pop. Britney is certainly a master of this category. Of the 90’s teen pop divas, her trailer trash roots, auto-tuned voice and undeniable club bangers have made me a fan. Not in a crying, “Leave Britney alone!” way but a fan in the same way that I’m a fan of the Filet O’ Fish from McDonald’s. Maybe it isn’t great but damn is it tasty! Plus, she’s got a lot of really great songs to work the imaginary runway in your bathroom to and a few truly legendary music videos. 

Before I go any further, let’s look at a timeline of this awful era so we might have a little more clarity as to what was really going on:

  • Circus came out on November 28th, 2008.
  • My birthday is November 30th.
  • Britney’s birthday is December 2nd.
  • My sobriety date in January 2nd, 2009.

Coincidence, bad timing and the aforementioned diva sorcery, the album and the artist who made it are now forever wedged in a timeframe of my life that was undeniably horrible. Today in 2017, I think this is hilarious. I’m sure Britney and the gang didn’t sit down and say, “Let’s make an album you can bottom out from drugs and alcohol to but you can also dance to!” Sexy booty shaking anthems like the title track, “Kill the Lights,” “Leather and Lace” and “If You Seek Amy” are so light and fluffy they might as well be made out of marshmallows. “Leather and Lace” literally opens with the lines, “French fingertips. Red lips. Bitch is dangerous. Cotton candy kiss.
Can’t wait for my sugar rush” for crying out loud. It wasn’t like I was suicidal and listening to PJ Harvey on repeat (not this time, anyway). I was EXTREMELY delusional in those final days of 2008, however. Convinced that maybe things weren’t so bad and maybe an 11th hour financial miracle and a mystical answer from the gods would soon arrive, perhaps the sugary snacks of La Spears were just what I needed in that timeframe. Maybe it was all I could handle.

I sure the hell couldn’t handle reality. A mere month after Britney gifted Circus to the world, I would be evicted from my apartment. A few days after that I would come clean and ask for help. My own circus of daily drinking and regular cocaine use came crashing down. After starting drinking and using at age 14, at age 36 I finally got sober. Circus, the record soon fell off my playlist too. Too upbeat, too reminiscent of those last insane days, Britney’s solid B+ of a record was shifted out rotation for darker, holy-shit-my-life-is-fucked albums. In fact, I hadn’t even listened to the whole record since then until yesterday.

In celebration of her own 36 birthday(ANOTHER BRITNEY PARALLEL! Chills and goosebumps, people.), I honored St. Britney by listening to Circus as I was making curry and baking. Still hard not to bust a move to, the record has great dance tracks and some Grade A guilty pleasures. Remarkably, I remembered all of the lyrics to every track which is impressive given my chemical intake at that time. Not triggering or PTSD inducing, I had a really good time revisiting the soundtrack of my bottoming out. Britney and her general Barbie as pop star persona has always been really enjoyable to me and Circus falls very much inline with all of that. It’s always weird/hard/intense things time of year for me and oddly enough hearing Circus again brought some unexpected closure. I know. A spiritual moment courtesy of Britney Spears (Spearitual?) sounds ridiculous. But as I hung out in my kitchen with Brit-Brit, I gained some compassion and perspective for that guy who was literally dying.

It did strike me that one song, “Out From Under” sort of sums up that year and those final days perfectly. A dreamy-sounding break up song, it could be personally applicable for ending my relationship with drugs and alcohol or the actual romantic relationship I was in at the time. Produced by the underrated genius Guy Sigsworth, the song was probably played in dramatic moments on CW shows in 2008. But it was these lyrics that struck me yesterday:

I don’t wanna feel the pain
What good would it do me now
I’ll get it all figured out
When I’m out from under.

Under. That’s very much where I was and not where I am today. While we don’t get to pick our soundtracks for our bottoming out, I can honestly say I’m glad Circus is mine. It’s very “on brand” for my tongue in cheek journey of getting sober. Depression and despair that you can dance to! Perfect. Nice work, God & Britney. Plus, it forever bonds me to my Sagittarius sister Britney for life. But never forget that I did shaved head and crazy first, bitch.

 

 

Advertisements

a path to the rainbow’s end

seven wonders.jpg

So long ago
It’s a certain time
It’s a certain place

Not everybody I know who got sober drank at work. Not everybody I know who got sober did drugs at work. But I certainly did. As did my favorite rock goddess Stevie Nicks. Stevie also slept with Tom Petty and wore shawls to work, things I did not do–yet! I mean there’s still time! Actually, the shawls are more likely to go down than the Petty moment(shudder). Still, Stevie is such a longstanding influence on me that I wouldn’t count anything out. In fact, I’m a little shocked that I haven’t blogged about her here after nearly a year in business. She certainly came up multiple times at urtheinspiration. The thing I love about Stevie is that her songwriting has such layers. Beneath the witchy, lace and leather trappings are some real complex, emotional words. Her writing is unapologetic and truthful while always peppered with a little sadness just to round out the flavor.  Yet the song on my mind lately is “Seven Wonders” a song she didn’t even write for Fleetwood Mac.

The song comes from Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night, two albums after their flawless in every sense of the word classic Rumors. Celebrating 30 years in release this spring, Tango in the Night has a spattering of memorable songs and is notable for being the last album the Fleetwood-Nicks-Buckingham-McVie-McVie lineup ever recorded together. Tracks like “Big Love,” the still solid “Everywhere,” “Little Lies”  and the aforementioned “Seven Wonders” were radio hits for a reason. Lushly produced by Lindsey Buckingham, each song is pure Fleetwood Mac and signs of a band who could pretty much phone it in after 14 albums together. This must-read Pitchfork review of the re-issue nails all the delights and disasters of Tango In The Night but let’s just say, as always with Fleetwood Mac, the back story nearly eclipses the record itself.

Knee-deep in a spiraling cocaine addiction co-founder Mick Fleetwood could barely be counted on during the recording of Tango In The Night while Nicks was out of rehab for her own coke problem but now filled to the brim with opiates. In a move that pre-dates the current opioid crisis, Nicks claims her doctor prescribed her Klonopin as a form of treatment for cocaine addiction. Per an article she wrote for Newsweek in 2011:

What this man said was: “In order to keep you off cocaine we should put you on the drug that we’re using a lot these days called Klonopin.” Stupidly, I said, “All right.” And the next eight years of my life were destroyed.

Naturally, Tango in the Night suffered. “I started not being able to get to Lindsey Buckingham’s house on time, and I would get there and everybody was drinking, so I’d have a glass of wine,” she writes. “Don’t mix tranquilizers and wine. Then I’d sing horrific parts on his songs, and he would take the parts off. I was hardly on Tango of the Night, which I happen to love.” Buckingham himself says of Nicks’ performance on the record, “Stevie was the worse she’s ever been.” Reports of Nicks being too drunk to record and having to have vocals patched together by Buckingham are now part of Tango in the Night’s legend.

Yet for all the drug soaked disasters on Tango in the Night, Stevie Nicks and “Seven Wonders” survives. The song had a major resurgence recently when it was featured on American Horror Story, catapulting it back on the Billboard charts. When you hear today in 2017, its pure Nicks. Written by her backup singer and collaborator Sandy Stewart, Nicks receives co-writing credit by default. According to SongMeanings, “While listening to the demo by Stewart (who did not provide any written lyrics), Nicks misunderstood the phrase “All the way down you held the line” as ‘All the way down to Emmeline’, which is what she sang and led to Nicks’ credit as co-writer of the song.” Classic Stevie. Like what the hell does her version even mean but wait who cares? It’s Stevie. We mere mortals are not meant to understand. Clearly, Stewart was well-versed in the mysticism and imagery of Stevie as the track features lines like “I’ll make a path to the rainbow’s end.” As far as Stevie Nicks Fleetwood Mac songs, it’s not one of the iconic greats. It’s no “Landslide” or “Gypsy.” But I love it for the shawl-twirling late 80’s rock sensibility. Plus, it’s catchy as hell. 1987 was the pinnacle for pop song earworms and “Seven Wonders” holds its own among them.  Knowing we what we know now about Stevie during the time the song was recorded, it’s impossible not to view it as a survival anthem.

So long ago
It’s a certain time
It’s a certain place
You touched my hand and you smiled
All the way back you held out your hand
If I hope and I pray
Ooh it might work out someday
If I live to see the seven wonders
I’ll make a path to the rainbow’s end
I’ll never live to match the beauty again

Rich in the theme of a missed opportunity of fleeting love and happiness, you’d be hard pressed not to see how this relates to a person struggling with addiction. I can’t speak for Stevie but I know for me there were long stretches in my drinking and using and even in early sobriety, where I thought I’d never be happy again.  Love and happiness seem like fantasies when you’re just trying to stay alive. “Seven Wonders” taps into the this sentiment while hiding under the (presumably lace) veil of unrequited love. Plus, the legacy of the song is one of an artist in shambles, barely keeping it together. I certainly identify with wanting to show up but being too wasted to actually be any good. Equally profound is that Nicks has re-claimed the song in recent years and made it her own by performing it live. Talk about not regretting the past or shutting the door on it.

Upon the recent re-release of Tango in the Night, Rolling Stone posted the stripped down original version of the song. In it, you hear an artist fighting for her life but still absolutely killing it. She sounds determined, fierce and broken. It’s a stunning performance that proves that maybe the 8th wonder of the world is being able to escape our demons and survive ourselves. If it isn’t, than Stevie Nicks certainly is.

the despair & depression disco dance party playlist

4055471c60af935066546031c7fccf0f.jpg

The road map of my “journey” with drugs and alcohol can be done by venue. Journey is a hilarious word as if it required some old-timey scroll map and a brass telescope. Anyway, the progression for me is easy to chart. What started at teen goth and alternative clubs moved into raves and warehouse parties which moved to gay bars followed by all kinds of clubs and bars in Los Angeles which landed me at dive bars and soon enough drinking seven nights at home on my couch.  All of those locales naturally came with a soundtrack and as a lifelong music freak, one-time record store employee and DJ, I really thought the reason why I went out was because of the music. Knowing what I know now, I can see it was about the music but it was also about getting fucked up. And towards the end, it was just easier to get drunk and listen to music at home on my couch.

2009, the year I got sober, also had a soundtrack. I was riding the bus an hour each way everyday from Echo Park to Santa Monica for college which gave me lots of time in my headphones. Most days, I’d find a spot on the bus and hide in the back to listen to Jenny Lewis on repeat so I could cry my face off. When you’ve recently been evicted, watched you relationship of 11 years implode and quit drinking and using drugs, you kind of don’t give a shit about what people think so crying on the bus came with zero shame. Plus, its Los Angeles. People are so self-involved you’d practically have to be naked and on fire to get people to notice and even then they probably wouldn’t unless they recognized you from a reality show. In addition to my boo-hoo playlist, I was oddly drawn back into the electro music that I loved and played in my drinking days. But this time it happened in my headphones while waiting at downtown LA bus stops.

Although that little iPod I used to clutch onto like Linus does his blanket has long flown off to the electronics heaven in the sky, some of those songs still remain. Thanks to the Cloud and Apple’s inability to let anything go, I still own a lot of what I listened to the year I got sober. I recently looked at some of those songs again as they now follow me on my phone as if it’s still 2009 and was surprised at the soundtrack that pulled me through the hardest year of my life.

Basically everything off M83’s excellent Saturdays=Youth record tells the story of my 2009. Moody, teenage in spirit but adult in loss, the album was the perfect soundtrack for someone whose life was being rebuilt. I specifically remember listening to this beautiful track walking around downtown LA and waiting for the bus.

This is the song that pushed me down the rabbit hole of playlists past. I heard it on Pandora a few days ago and was immediately transported to that year and all of those feelings. Undeniably dancey and catchy, I’m sure I identified on some level with the dark as hell lyrics like:

In the darkness, A killer awaits
To kill a life, And the lies you make
You do another, So this death can live
Just keep on dancing.

Tapping into my 1980’s soul who loved bands Human League and New Order, “Lights and Music” was one of those songs I could just blast and not think about anything. Sure, I was a million miles away from the party atmosphere they talk about in the song but the dance party in my mind was lit, y’all.

Speaking of the 80’s, Cyndi Lauper is so ingrained in who I am as gay man that it would require another post and a box of tissue to really scrape the surface of how much she changed my life as a child. So of course she was there again in 2009 with this track from the tragically unappreciated Bring Ya To The Brink.

Turned up loud enough, this song by Everything But the Girl frontwoman Tracey Thorn was best enjoyed in 2009 while walking at night and participating in text fights with my ex. Like I said, everything has a soundtrack.

Seeing Karen O live on stage is like watching a hurricane turn into a person. I had totally forgotten until I scanned my library how much I played the hell out of this song. Maybe in my weakened state I was hoping to summon Karen’s fierce magic would rub off on me.

The epitome of #Underrated, this rollicking jam sums up every ripped open, pissed off desperate emotion I was going through at the time. Lyrics like, “Oh my god. You think I’m in control” and “Find a cure for my life” still punch me in the gut today and take me back to that place where the world felt like it was ending.

To listen to these songs now is like watching a movie about another person. They vividly compose a picture of a life in peril, a life in progress, a life with no certainty. But it’s a life so alien to the cozy and relatively sane one I have today. I can hear these tracks and sing and dance along to them but the picture of this guy in utter despair is still crystal clear. Nobody told me as I schlepped myself on the bus to school and AA meetings that the chances I’d come out the other end and stay sober weren’t good. Nobody told me that I was walking a thin line between life and death. Nobody told me that the numbers and statistics of a person like me staying sober weren’t exactly in my favor.

Or maybe they did and I just turned the music up and kept walking.

 

never let me down

db.jpg

I’m still not convinced that David Bowie is actually dead. He was such a never-ending force of artistry and bold creativity for so long, that it makes accepting the fact that he’s no longer on this planet a hard pill to swallow. Nevertheless, he is actually gone from this realm. But he hasn’t stopped inspiring me.

With a mere 8 days left of my daily blogging fest, I’m slogging towards the end and feeling creatively zapped. I sat down this morning with coffee in hand and knew I had to start reading and listening to things that inspired me. I can’t summon these witty, wise wonderful posts on my own, people. So I had to act fast. If I let a feeling of “Oh, screw it!” takeover, I will be paralyzed and ain’t nothing coming out of this keyboard, honeychild. After falling down, the Google/YouTube rabbit hole, I landed, as I have before, on Bowie. I’m toying with idea of writing posts about different records from 1987 (like I did with True Blue and Tidal last year) so after perusing the Wikipedia page from that year, there he was: David Bowie. How could I forget that Bowie had released Never Let Me Down in 1987?

The record, considered a flop by many, was one I owned and in my 15-year-old brain didn’t think was that bad. Sure, it wasn’t the Changes One, greatest hits cassette that I burned a hole in. Nor was it Let’s Dance. But it was still Bowie for crying out loud. Bowie to me is like that saying about bad pizza- it’s still pizza. Besides, there are some great tracks on the record. Like the title song, for example. It’s Bowie does Motown or Motown does Bowie does 1987. Whatever it is, it’s decent track that holds up today. Also, you can do a lot worse in an 80’s song than “Day-In Day-Out”,the lead single from the record.

And even Bowie himself considered “Time Will Crawl” to be one of his all time favorite songs. The homoerotic dance moments in the video alone prohibit it from being a throwaway track.

Yet the album is far from perfect. Many of the songs are way over produced, a quality Bowie blamed himself for as he handed off the project to other people and didn’t stay involved. Some of the songs songs should probably not exist at all. I mean nobody, least of all our dear David Bowie, needs a song featuring a rap by Mickey Rourke. I swear I’m not making that up.  Plus, the timing of the record is notoriously crappy. After the mega success of Let’s Dance in 1983, Bowie struggled to find his footing. The followup, Tonight, was a commercial failure which breaks my heart to no end considering it features Bowie and Tina Turner singing the title track. That alone should shield it from any negativity.

Couple that with the tanking at the box office of Labyrinth, a fate unimaginable to kids who grew up loving that film and its music, and Bowie couldn’t catch a break. Things didn’t get better in 1987 as Never Let Me Down, despite decent sales, was seen as a flop, critically. Listening to it this morning, and I know this is a mega-fan speaking so my opinion isn’t exactly untainted, I found it to be really good. Charming, experimental, observational about societal issues yet tinged with Bowie’s cosmic optimism, Never Let Me Down, is far from a bad listen. Yet the real reason, I believe, I stumbled on it this morning, is this quote from Bowie in 1995 about the record:

“I felt dissatisfied with everything I was doing, and eventually it started showing in my work. Let’s Dance was an excellent album in a certain genre, but the next two albums after that [Tonight and Never Let Me Down] showed that my lack of interest in my own work was really becoming transparent. My nadir was Never Let Me Down. It was such an awful album. I’ve gotten to a place now where I’m not very judgmental about myself. I put out what I do, whether it’s in visual arts or in music, because I know that everything I do is really heartfelt. Even if it’s a failure artistically, it doesn’t bother me in the same way that Never Let Me Down bothers me. I really shouldn’t have even bothered going into the studio to record it.”

I got chills reading that. Why? Because it felt so relatable and shocking at the same time. There is something incredibly human and reassuring about David Bowie struggling to find his footing in his work. This man, this god, this inspiration to millions, had bad times where he felt like his work sucked. What a relief. If David Bowie can feel disheartened by the creative process and hate what he’s doing but somehow still carry on, than goddamnit, I can keep writing for the rest of the month. I can let myself off the hook. I can breathe and laugh about things that weren’t that great. And most importantly, I can keep going.

So thank you, David Bowie. As always, you never let me down.

God probably sounds a lot like Mavis Staples

mavis-e1432643797857

Whatever you believe in that happens to be bigger yourself, that happens to be something you can’t explain, that thing that I just call God, because even though I am about as non-secular as you can get, I am also lazy and God is easy. That that thing, God, shows up in the most unlikeliest of places. Like a Rolling Stone article about a recently released live track from 2014 where the Arcade Fire and Mavis Staples cover a Talking Heads song. The song, which may be proof of a higher power in and of itself, opened a whole can of worms for me. Mainly, the undeniable miracle that is Mavis Staples.

The same article linked to the above disco gospel ballad by Arcade Fire and Staples released in January as a protest song which benefited the ACLU. As I listened to the lo-fi electro beat and the lyrics, which talk clearly about giving power and then taking it away I thought, “Of course, Mavis Staples would be here for us now.”After all, here’s a woman, who alongside her family, provided the soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement.Angry, teary eyed and yet somehow relieved, the song knocked me out.  Not one to slow down, Mama Mavis was also just featured on a brand new Gorillaz track. The song is another one with a powerful message made even more so when delivered by that incredible voice.

I have to be honest. Hearing these two songs back-to-back was incredibly emotional. Not only was I reminded of the fucked up times we live in but I was comforted by knowing that if there’s any hope Mavis will be around to help carry us through all of it. Raw, powerful and honest both songs pack a punch and one I didn’t expect just hanging out drinking coffee at my kitchen table. Speaking of things divine, the timing of my musical Mavis binge was certainly other worldly. I was planning on watching the documentary on her life Mavis! directed by Jessica Edwards, currently airing on HBONow, later that afternoon.

mavis!.jpg

The documentary, which was filmed in 2014 and made the rounds at festivals the following year before winding up on HBO, couldn’t be any more timely. While I am definitely not that annoying person who tells people they will or won’t feel a certain emotion when watching a film, I will say it wouldn’t be the worst idea ever to have a box of tissues nearby when viewing Mavis! Nearly 20 days of personal blogging has left me a emotional mess so my weepiness at the film could be considered suspicious however you’d have to be a Nazi Cyborg to not be moved by Mavis Staples and her incredible message.

For starters, the film profiles Mavis and Staples Singers incredible rise to fame as gospel singers who wound up singing songs of hope and message for the Civil Rights movement. The band’s personal connection with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is incredibly powerful. Pops Staples was inspired by King’s message and wanted to make music that did the same thing. Coming from Chicago, Mavis and her clan were shocked while touring the South to see the hideous racism and injustice happening to black people. And as Mavis herself notes, the struggle is sadly alive and well today and she’s vowed to keep singing about until, “Dr. King’s dream comes true.”

Staples’ list of collaborators and famous fans reads like a who’s who of rock and roll history. Bonnie Raitt, Curtis Mayfield and recent collaborator Jeff Tweedy are all mentioned or interviewed in the film but the dishiest celebrity dirt comes from Bob Dylan. Dylan, a huge fan of the group, apparently at one point asked Staples to marry him! She reaches ninja-levels of cuteness when talking about their flirtation which “may have included some kissing.”

Yet the tissues came in handy when the film showed footage of Staples working with Prince. The two made a record together that never saw the light of day, sadly, due to his all out war with Warner Brothers Records. As Staples describes Princes genius, we are treated to shots of the pair working in the studio together. While sobbing, I was reminded that nearly a year later, I’m still fucked up about that one.

prince-mavis-staples.jpg

Near the end of the film, Staples and Tweedy listen to a newly restored recording of a song by her father from an album he never got to complete before he died. By this time, I was just a full-fledged tear waterfall and embraced my crying fest. It’s a beautiful moment and one Staples herself is touched by too. And of course she is because like all shining divine beings, she’s also incredibly truthful and human.

And that’s the thing about her voice. Far from the smooth voice of  an angel, Mavis gets a little rough and raspy. At times, she looks as if she’s exorcising some demons in the clips of live performances featured in the film. Mentioned more than once in the film, is her desire to keep telling the truth and to keep spreading a message and I’m convinced that’s what gives her voice that edge.

That’s why I’m pretty sure whatever my non-secular unicorn glitter god is it probably sounds like Mavis Staples. Raw, real, not always pretty but comforting to the depths of your soul. Yeah If God sounds like that than hallelujah. Plus with a career pushing past the six decade point, Staples certainly seems eternal. At the end of the film, the artist herself even hints at her own angelic future. “If you don’t see me singing here, look for me in heaven,” she says. “I’ll be walking those streets of gold and singing around God’s throne.”

Still Sullen: Fiona Apple’s ‘Tidal’ Turns 20

b9939a06694c5e8f57f45abcf639831a85c334b9

Maybe the things we write when we’re 18 years old are worth looking at again. Maybe our feelings in that baby bird stage of adulthood are valid. Maybe we’re developing a narrative at the age, despite not really knowing who we are.  And maybe, if we’re incredibly blessed, what we’re saying at age 18 is giving us a glimpse of the genius that is yet to come. This is all certainly the case for Fiona Apple. The singer and songwriter penned her debut album, Tidal at the age of 18 and today that record turns 20. Released on July 23, 1996 Tidal, for music listeners of a certain “vintage” was one of those records whose power that couldn’t be denied. Even if you weren’t a fan, you could admit you never heard anything like Tidal before. Everybody knew about it, everybody bought it and all done before the era of social media to boot. The buzz on her was just that huge. It also had the good fortune of being released in an era of really terrific female bands and songwriters. Bjork, No Doubt, Tori Amos, Sheryl Crow, Garbage and even Alanis were all having a conversation at the same time that both genders were eating up with a spoon. And no voice in that crowd was as a distinct as Fiona Apple’s.

Part poet, part pain in the ass, Apple’s Tidal at times sounds like a musical journal of an angry girl. Other times, it sounds like a broken heart set to music. But more than that, I think what I responded to then was this girl, this kid, who is 100% telling the truth. The album doesn’t drip with bullshit. It tells it like it is. Take the opening song, “Sleep To Dream”, for example. The first words we the listener hear come out her mouth are as follows;
I tell you how I feel but you don’t care
I say tell me the truth but you don’t dare
You say love is a hell you cannot bear
And I say give me mine back and go there
For all I care

From moment one, Ms. Fiona is letting us know she is not here to play. She has her “own hell to raise” so kindly move your ass.

Being pissed off and everyone around not knowing what’s wrong with you is a very quintessential young person’s experience. Apple explained later that “Sullen Girl” was born from just that.

“Sullen Girl is… complicated for me. It’s about a lot of things. It’s about when I was doing the album and everything was happening all at once and I just felt like ‘Oh my God, what’s going on here?’ The second verse is a… I went through a really hard time when I was a very, very cold person. I didn’t like to be near people. When I was 12, I was raped by a stranger and that’s what this song is basically about, because I felt like everybody in my life thought there was something wrong with me and it was just my wondering ‘was that what changed me?’ […] That was an experience that made me a lot stronger. It taught me a lot about who I am and life. Things happen and you go through pain. It doesn’t have to be such a big deal. It’s like ‘yeah, I was raped.’ It’s over, though. And I learned from it. It’s sad, but good things come out of it, too.”

The next song on the record, “Shadowboxer” was a big radio hit and for many, a first introduction to the artist. While “Criminal” (Don’t worry. We’ll get there) left a bigger imprint in a pop culture landscape, “Shadowboxer” for me is an incredibly haunting and brilliant song that stands alone as some of her best writing. Exhibit A:

Oh, you creep up
Like the clouds
And you set my soul at ease
Then you let
Your love abound
And you bring me
To my knees

It’s a straight up classic and deserves a spot on your 1996 mixtape.

What can I possibly say about “Criminal” that hasn’t already been said? With its infectious hook, gut punch lyrics and Calvin Klein on crack music video, “Criminal” is arguably her signature hit. It’s her “Don’t Speak”, her “You Oughta Know”, her “Stupid Girl”. With lines like:

 Heaven help me for the way I am
Save me from these evil deeds before I get them done
I know tomorrow brings the consequence at hand
But I keep living this day like the next will never come

“Criminal” deserves every ounce of praise it gets, even if the song’s popularity at times eclipses the rest of her incredible catalogue.

When Tidal came out I was 23 and working as an assistant at a PR firm on Sunset Blvd which meant I mainly ordered lunch and answered the phone. The album was given the distinction of becoming our hold music, as dictated by my boss, who was obsessed with all things new. The next two tracks “Slow Like Honey” and “The First Taste” are atmospheric and jazzy enough to fit the bill. But to label them “just another white girl doing Sade songs” is unfair. “The First Taste”, in particular, is a transformative and seductive track that goes just as well with candlelight as it does with contemplation.

As I listened to Tidal as I was writing this, it was hard not to think about my life in 1996. Clueless, broke, new to Los Angeles, on the run from increasingly pesky drug problems and trying to figure out who I was, artists like Fiona Apple were my spiritual advisors. Moody, bewildered and heartbroken, Fiona’s words were identifiable even though I was older, male and gay. Those truths she was exposing at age 18 are universal enough and delivered in such a masterful way, that it didn’t matter. Apple was sharing secrets with me and a lot of them sounded like my own. The last thing that stands out about Tidal is the artistry. Fiona Apple wrote every word on that record herself at age 18. I guess that shouldn’t be a big deal but in an era where Beyoncé credits 50 some odd writers on Lemonade, it is a big deal. Listen, if you’ve got 50 some odd writers telling your story, it’s no longer your story. The art of the solo artist telling their story, on their own is rare and special. Apple was also blessed with a brilliant producer, first class musicians and a label who stood behind her, things that just don’t really happen for new female artists today.

And yet, things have changed. I’m not that much of a bitter, old fart to realize that music is different. That when “kids today” hear the word tidal they think of streaming service. That songwriting and storytelling in music has survived, you just have to dig deeper for it. But it doesn’t mean the things we loved or the way we felt when we were young, fucked up and confused aren’t worth looking at. Tidal isn’t just a time capsule for the pain we felt but a progress report for how far we’ve come and a scrapbook for the things we’ll never feel again.

I See You On The Street & You Walk On By: 30 Years Of True Blue

181801

30 years ago today, True Blue by Madonna was released which makes it official: It was a really long ass time ago when I was a teenager and there’s no turning back. I was 13 that summer. If I seem spastic and kinda wacky to you now, multiply that by 80 and you’ll get me at 13. Awkward, effeminate and a neon glitter crayon in the box of Crayola primary colors. I hadn’t really started to think about sex and I’m sure on some level I knew I was gay but at 13 I was still holding out for the possibility that I might develop magical powers and would be able to forgo life’s more difficult moments. I was always a realist.  Thankfully, the music of the era facilitated escape while being properly dramatic in a way that 13-year-old me could really identify with. True Blue fit that prerequisite like a lace fingerless glove.

Take the first single off the record, “Live to Tell”, for example. As kids we honestly wondered, “What the hell is she talking about?” The song didn’t make sense but by the music video but by her dowdy appearance, we knew it was serious. Don’t take my gay card/Madonna card (active duel member since 1991!) when I tell you I don’t always love Madonna ballads. There often too mopey. Her vocals grating. The lyrics goofy. And I felt that way about “Live to Tell”. However, the song’s legacy has endured. Madonna said,”I thought about my relationship with my parents and the lying that went on. The song is about being strong, and questioning whether you can be that strong but ultimately surviving.” Definitely the kind of stuff “the kids” who were buying records at the time could relate to. Later, Madonna used the song for people with HIV and AIDS and to represent political oppression. When I listened to it for this piece, I still don’t love it. It’s still melodramatic. It’s still kinda silly and way too long but I can appreciate it for what it is.

The song we were all really talking about that summer was “Papa Don’t Preach”. An upbeat dance number about teen pregnancy (only in the 80’s). The song was escandalo for me and my group of catholic school friends. Just hearing it on the radio, I worried about going to hell. But to be honest, I didn’t worry too much about it. I thought just being a Culture Club fan had sort of sealed the deal on that end, not to mention the whole being in love with boys thing. The song, in 2016, is harmless but the moxie and attitude Madonna was cultivating at the time still blasts through the speakers at full force. Plus, who doesn’t love those strings in the intro?

For me, the song that captures the isolation and invisibility of being a thirteen year-old is “Open Your Heart”. Despite the stripper-peep show-dancing with a child video, the lyrics of the song as well as her delivery just nail that feeling of wanting to be noticed and paid attention to. Lyrics like, “I follow you around but you can’t see. You’re too wrapped up in yourself to notice”describe my relationship with pretty much every older kid I wanted to pay attention to me or boy I wanted to be friends with. Although nearly 28 at the time, Madonna got it and knew that my 1980’s tween struggle was real. The song describes wanting to loved by someone emotionally unavailable and given what we know now about her then relationship with Sean Penn, the tune might be more autobiographical than we gave it credit for back in 1986. “Open Your Heart” is a peek at the songwriter Madonna was on the way to becoming that speaks to the loneliness and desperation of teens everywhere.

True Blue is often called Madonna’s most girly album. The title track certainly reinforces that label. Bouncy, poppy and sugary, it’s the musical equivalent of a jelly donut. By the way, peep actress Debi Mazar in the video above! Ditto for two other songs on the record “White Heat” and “Jimmy Jimmy”respectively which show Madonna’s love of old movies. “White Heat” features Jimmy Cagney samples while “Jimmy Jimmy” tells the imaginary tale of a teen romance with James Dean. Keeping in line with femininity and high drama, “La Isla Bonita” was a huge hit. The sing predates latin pop songs by the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin by over a decade and remain a karaoke favorite by white girls everywhere. As she twirls her dress around in the video by all of those candles, you worry about her safety (Stop, drop and roll Madonna!) but the song is still a spicy guilty pleasure.

Like thousands of gay kids from the 80’s, Madonna was big part of growing up and coming out of the closet.True Blue predates those two things by a few years but at the age of thirteen spoke to my soul. Today, in my forties, It’s still a solid listen. It serves as timecapsule for sure. Hearing the lyrics and watching the videos, I was transported back to those awkward 13 year old days. As an artist, her best days were ahead of her (Like A Prayer, Ray of Light and Confessions on a Dancefloor being my top three albums were yet to come.) and as a teenager, my tastes would shift to the darker and even more emotional (the Smiths, Siouxsie, Bowie) but I always came back to Madonna.

While researching this piece, Orlando was all over the news. These silly songs didn’t feel so silly. But then again nothing did. I’m lucky to have grown up and come out in an era where artists like Madonna were saying “Be who you are and love who you are and fuck anyone who doesn’t get it.” So for all it’s dated synthy pleasures and theatrical lyrics, True Blue and message of its artist, might be something we need now more than ever.