First, a couple of notes on books I’ve read this week.
Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Huston: Solid African-American love story set in post-slavery time. According to the afterword, Richard Wright (who wrote the awesome “Native Son”) criticized this book for being rather pointless. He’s right in that it doesn’t have political aspirations per se, but sometimes, a good love story can just be a good love story and still be worth reading.
Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life – Brian Raftery: Writers need to write about things they feel passion for, and this book has passion all over it. Raftery doesn’t like karaoke; he LOVES it, and his passion is completely contagious. I swear, one of the first things I’m going to do when I’m back in Korea is to warble some tunes in a karaoke booth.
Okay, now on to Today’s “very special” Countdown:
1) Million Dollar Bill – Whitney Houston
2) I Want to Know What Love Is – Mariah Carey
3) Make Me – Janet Jackson
4) Revolver – Madonna
5) You Belong With Me – Taylor Swift
Anybody notice a pattern? Yes, today’s countdown is an All-Star Diva Edition, as I don’t think there has ever been a time when more pop divas had new songs out bouncing off each other like sequin-covered bumper cars. The only real bonafide diva missing is Kylie Minogue, who’s too busy getting ready for her first U.S. tour (good luck, Kyles!). So it’s a ripe time for a Countdown Catfight, so let’s begin.
We begin with Whitney, whose new album sold more copies in its first week than any of Whitney’s previous albums. Well, I’ve gotta say, it’s pretty well-deserved. Like I’ve said before, Whitney’s voice is no longer the perfect crystal chandelier it once was (the chandelier has chunks missing now), but the songs themselves are among the best Whitney’s been given to handle. It’s kind of the opposite situation from a song like “I Have Nothing” which was featured in a previous Countdown: perfect vocals, but boring-ass song. Now we have a raspy, can’t-handle-high-notes voice, but we have some kick-ass tunes. It’s all about the rhythm now–not the high notes–and “Million Dollar Bill” proves itself to be catchier than the Swine Flu and the common cold combined. Welcome back, Whitney. Now, be sure to release “Call You Tonight” as the next single, and stay off the you-know-what (she seemed a bit too excited when she was telling Oprah just how she prepared the drugs she was taking).
Next, we have Whitney’s old vocal rival and duet partner, Mariah, with her remake of the 80’s Foreigner hit. Now Mariah’s had problems herself with a breaking-down voice, but still, there’s something about the way Mariah Carey handles a ballad that draws you in and hooks your heart; it’s that plaintative quality. And there is also that whistle note; she’s used them in about a hundred songs now, but it still provides a roller coaster thrill just like the first time I heard it. This stands right alongside Mariah’s best covers, “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” and “Against All Odds” (and far above her renditons of “I Still Believe” and “Open Arms” which were clunkers).
Talking of clunkers, we come to Miss Jackson’s new song. But first, let’s discuss Janet’s performance at the MTV Awards. As brief as her performance was, she owned that stage, eclipsing everyone, including Beyonce who later performed. But we have to go back to discussing vocal problems, because Janet’s were almost unlistenable, despite the fact that she was LIP-SYNCING. What the heck? Now, Janet was never a belter, but she still had a sweet, girlish coo that wrapped summer jams in rays of sunshine. But in the last few albums, she’s either sounded like a robot (“Feedback”) or her vocals were so wispy that they were barely there (“Rock Wit U”). The same problems plague “Make Me.” The song itself might have been decent, but her voice has almost no personality, no real energy, and none of the presence that she has on the stage, and as a result, it’s all pretty forgettable, despite the Michael shout-outs in the lyrics.
Now we come to the Queen Diva herself, Madonna, and the second new song off her latest greatest-hits collection. “Revolver” comes from the recent genre that I call “Hook Pop.” What is that, exactly? Well, it’s when a song basically introduces a simple hook (hopefully a catchy one) and basically just repeats it on an endless loop. Examples would include “Hollaback Girl,” “London Bridge,” “Milkshake,” most of Britney Spears’ Blackout album, and pretty much every song the Black-Eyed Peas have ever released. Madonna’s come close to Hook Pop before (“Music,” “Hung Up”), but here, she dives right in, and well, it’s absolutely stupid and addictive at the same time. It works far better than the previous single “Celebration,” which was Madonna retreading familiar ground; here, she sheds all the weight of being Madonna and jumps into a state of goofy bliss, and she takes you there along for the ride.
Now, we go to Taylor Swift. You may well have asked, “What the heck is SHE doing here? Well, you’re right, but it was tough to fill out the fifth spot. Like I said, Kylie doesn’t have a new song out. Beyonce seems to finally have run out of songs to release from her double album (or she wouldn’t have performed “Single Ladies” for the 1,347th time at the VMA’s). Britney did release “Radar” not too long ago, but that song’s been around for YEARS now. Kelly Clarkson, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, and Lady Gaga all have new singles, but they’re not really full-fledged divas (although Lady Gaga is well on her way). So the best choice was clear: Taylor Swift, both because I like her and because I had to comment on the whole Kanye-gate thing.
So let me give my succinct opinion on this. Kanye (who DOES make some great music and will show up on the Top 101 Countdown) acted like a jerk. He is entitled to his opinion, yes, but his opinion is no more important or no more right than anybody else’s (after all, who DOESN’T think their opinion is right???). And he’s actually pulled this kind of crap before, going off on a huge rant when Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” video beat out his “Take to the Sky” video for some award a couple of years ago. So Kanye was wrong, wrong, wrong, no matter whether or not you agree that “Single Ladies” was a better video than “You Belong With Me” (and personally, I absolutely disagree, because I prefer videos with stories, I can relate to misfit loners stuck on the bleachers–though I was a “choir queer” and not a “band geek” myself–and the whole prom scene was heart-tugging in classic John Hughes fashion).
That being said, I think people are making too much of the situation. Some people have suggested that Kanye’s actions (just like Serena’s the night before) were indicative of society at large, and how everyone’s sense of right and wrong were pretty much going down the toilet. Personally, I actually saw the whole brouhaha in a completely different light. Kanye acted like a jackass (President Obama was absolutely right), but look at all the people who rallied around Taylor and spoke out against what Kanye did. I thought all of those people’s reactions were far more indicative of society than Kanye’s outburst. People realized that he shouldn’t have acted that way; society didn’t want to accept that kind of behavior. So for me, the score is Kanye 0, Values 1. And Beyonce deserves 1,000 points for the classy way she handled the situation, giving up her speech time so Taylor could finally deliver her speech. To me that was the moment that should and will live on in people’s memories far longer than Kanye bitching on stage.
Okay, now let’s go to Taylor’s song. I love it, pure and simple. It’s simple; it’s sweet; it’s pure teenage pop at its blissful best. It’s going to be very interesting to see how Taylor Swift’s career develops over time, because her music is so-of-the-moment right now. What I mean is, she’s a teenager singing about teenage feelings that teenagers (or in my case, people who never really grew up) can wholly relate to. What is she going to sing about as she grows up? Is she going to continue singing about adolescent crushes, and risking the chance of coming off immature and pathetic? Is she going to go on a “I-am-a-WOMAN-now” sexpot rampage (see Spears, B.)? Or is she going to turn into a “mature” artist, at the risk of alienating her original fan base? Who knows? Perhaps, we should just enjoy the present for what it is, just like Taylor does in her love-happy sings.
So in this Diva Catfight, who wins? Well, if I had to pick my favorite song of the bunch, Whitney would edge Taylor out for the win. But the real winner is YOU, faithful reader, as it’s a Diva Giveaway. Here are all of the five songs (even the disappointing Janet one). All of these Divas deserve to be recognized, and so do you.