Thursday, March 15, 2012

All The Papers Had To Say Was That Marilyn Was Found In The Nude: Love and Death in Pop Music

In my personal life, I am an avid conspiracy theorist.

You name it, I've got a weird paranoid social theory about it. Peanut allergies. Reality TV. Fibromyalgia. JFK RFK and MLK.

And yes, I think the truth is most DEFINITELY out there.

There is one style of conspiracy theory I can't get behind, and that is the kind that posits that when a successful and beautiful young person with a troubled life dies tragically that there must be some kind of sinister influence at work.

So no Marilyn or Princess Di theories from me (I have a lot else to say about Princess Di though, like what about the fact that she was OBVIOUSLY mentally unstable?).

It's hard to resist the impulse to make sense out of a highly visible (and predictable) tragedy like what happened to Marilyn Monroe, if only because it goes some way to absolve us of our collective cultural responsibility for the insecure young women who get chewed up and spit out in service to entertainment. (The part about our collective cultural responsibility comes in when we enjoy the performance of the Insecure Young Woman Getting Chewed Up And Spit Out persona as much or more than we enjoy the actual singing or acting or princess-ing or whatever the Insecure Young Woman felt she had to offer anybody in the first place.)

Let's all just listen to "Candle in the Wind" for a second.

The song: Elton John, "Candle in the Wind"; 1973


So that's why I think Tupac is for sure dead, but why I have deep sympathy for those who will go to great lengths to believe he is not.

Yes, in his songs and music videos he was obviously obsessed with the idea of young men getting randomly shot, which many conspiracy theorists believe was a shrewd way of intimating to his fans that he was going to fake his own death, or (depending on your flavor of paranoia) that he was going to be deliberately assassinated.

But you don't need that kind of conspiracy to understand what he was going for! He was saying, "HELP! LOOK! LOOK at how many cool young black dudes just get shot one day for no reason! IT IS SENSELESS AND AWFUL AND I WOULD LIKE FOR IT TO STOP."

And then it happened to him and it was senseless and awful. I was way too young and way too white to love Tupac when he was alive, but I understand that people did, a lot, and that the shock of his death left them reeling. And that grief makes you do crazy things.

But here's this song, in which Tupac uses his incredibly easy, elegant style to declare himself pro-choice, anti-war, and a champion of children born in urban poverty and their mothers. This song may not be pop music exactly, but it works within the framework of pop by sampling the Five Stairsteps' beautiful "O-o-h Child" and, at 1:50, referencing Marvin Gaye--another super literate, socially aware black man senselessly killed before his time.

(2:27: "I try to find my friends, but they're blowing in the wind"--he knew exactly what he was doing.)

The song: 2Pac, "Keep Ya Head Up"; 1993


The song: Kanye West ft. Rihanna and Kid Cudi, "All Of The Lights"; 2011
The moment: 3:08

This song features a regular smorgasboard of backing vocalists, but Rihanna sings the hook and it had to be that way.

Turn up the lights in here baby, EXTRA bright I want y'all to SEE this

Like Marilyn Monroe, Rihanna rides the line between the persona of the Troubled Young Woman and the reality of it, and she does it well. What does everybody know about Rihanna? That her boyfriend beat the shit out of her and that she sings sexy songs about men beating the shit out of women. If she wanted to Rehabilitate Her Image, she could call up Kelly Clarkson or Beyonce and do a standard-issue lady-empowerment song, but instead she does this song--this song that says, in so many words, "HELP! LOOK."

Like all the best songs about social issues, "All of the Lights" connects it all together ("Candle in the Wind" is as much about homophobia as it is about sexism; "Keep Ya Head Up" rightly ties war, poverty, and gang violence to violence against women) AND does it in a way that is musically innovative, unique, elliptical and poetic, and just all-around GOOD.

(Piano line provided by Sir Elton John, who obviously still has an investment in highlighting the darkest sides of celebrity culture.)

At 3:08 a brief pause signals a break before the breakdown. And what a breakdown it is! The horns are almost royal in their pomp and circumstance, and then an unidentifiable collection of (male) voices sing the (previously feminine) hook:

Turn up the lights in here baby, extra BRIGHT I want y'all to see THIS

And then you hear Alicia Keys come in with the "whoooooooas" and then this weird, gruff voice starts singing "I tried to tell you but all I could say was whooooooooa" and then the song ends right there, just like that--You tried to tell me what now? All you could say was what?





Who needs conspiracies when it's all right here?