Tom Hooper’s 2019 adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats is bad. Mind-boggingly bad. The kind of bad that is hard to watch. Cats is not destined to be a cult classic. It doesn’t horseshoe from being so bad it becomes good. It doesn’t become camp (though it does try). It won’t be resurrected as a cult classic. It won’t be revisited as an underrated gem. It’s a bad film made with such good intentions that it feels churlish to criticize. So many critics slammed the film, citing its terrible special effects or bad performances as the main reason why the film doesn’t work. And those critics are correct – the rendering of the anthropomorphic cats is gross and disturbing – but the problem isn’t just Hooper’s interpretation of Cats, the problem is the source material. Though Lloyd Webber’s stage musical is a blockbuster, it’s a pretty shoddy show. The plot – if one could call it that – is nonsensical and tedious to follow and the music is repetitive and dull.
As the film opens, we become well acquainted with the film’s major problems immediately. The admittedly catchy score is dated – its sickly synths – introduces the lean score. The visuals feel off. It looks queasily real and animated, a confusing landscape that resembles a video game. As we see a faceless somebody fling a pillowcase into a jumbled alley, we see the true obstacle of the film: it’s the cats. I don’t know what Hooper thought when he allowed for the cats.
In the Broadway musical, the cast members were dressed in Lycra and tights, with tufts of fur and stylized makeup. They didn’t look like real cats, but that wasn’t the point. They looked like an 80s MTV-pop version of what dancing cats should look like: harlequinesque makeup, bushy wigs, fuzzy legwarmers. Costume designer John Napier allowed the costumes to be stylish and abstract with splashes of color and shapes that informed the characters. In Hooper’s version, the actors are CGI’d into anthropomorphic cats and it gets strange and confusing. The human faces look shoddily copy/pasted and because the actors engage in intricate dance sequences, they’re obviously bipedal, but then when they do walk on all fours, they’re on their hands and knees? They have human hands and feet. I mean, it all looks odd and ugly as if Cats is taking place on the Island of Dr Moreau. Also, the film tries to get clever by sizing the cats to scale, but then the CGI seems to get that wrong too because sometimes the cats seem too small. None of it is right.
Some of this could be saved if the performances are good, but unfortunately, the cast – made up of some pros like Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, Taylor Swift, James Corden, Idris Elba, and Jason Derulo, flounder mightily. Dench is laden down with furs and she seems to be heaving herself around; McKellen is odd and strange (and barely looks like a cat); Wilson and Corden are on hand for some (alleged) comic relief but neither comedian does well. The only decent note is Hudson, who as Grizabella, gets to sing the show’s big hit theme, “Memory” and does so beautifully. She tears into the maudlin pop ballad with a fiery passion that is at odds with how ridiculous she looks. The rest of the cast is made up of stage dancers and singers and the dance sequences are admittedly well done: Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is good and the dancers, ingenue lead Francesca Hayward in particular, do solid work, despite looking so awful.
Upon its release, Cats bombed mightily. Critics savaged the film and audiences found it bewildering. I watched the film with some perverse curiosity. Could a movie be that bad? Yes it can. It’s a mystery as to how this movie got made and more crucially, how it got released in its current state. If the CGI was junked and the production went back to essentially filming a stage performance, it wouldn’t have been such a gigantic disaster; granted, the actors would still have to sing the terrible music but it would have lent the surreal, absurdist imagery some plausible suspension of belief.
Instead, we’re left with this shambolic mess that takes itself way to seriously to dip into ridiculous camp a la Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Room. Instead, it collapses underneath the weight of its far-reaching pretensions and shoddy, rushed work.
Donna Summer would have been 73 today. The legendary pop diva died almost 10 years ago at the early age of 63 and left behind a tremendous legacy of music. Much of her work in the 1970s defined what popular music meant and she was a pioneer of dance music, creating a dance-pop template followed by great dance divas like Madonna, Janet Jackson, Jody Watley, Britney Spears. She was linked with fellow giants of early dance music including Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, Pete Bellotte, and Bruce Sudano. Her early single “Love to Love You Baby” from 1975 is arguably the most important disco single of the genre. It celebrated the carnal sexuality of the club culture. As Summer’s airy, sensual vocals moaned erotically over the funky beat. The song was a glorious 17 minutes long -a symphonic epic of passion.
“Love to Love You Baby” wasn’t Summer’s first single but it was an explosive introduction to a novel and distinct artist who would change music forever. It hit the US top 10, peaking at number 2, the first of 14 top 10 hit singles. She ruled the pop and dance charts, becoming the gorgeous face of disco music. Though dance music was seen with wary snobbery by rock critics who damned the genre as “inauthentic” or prefabricated, Summer became the voice of a dominant pop music genre that centered the voices of Black and Latino queer people as well as women of color. Disco music was the music of queer culture – a joyous celebration of queer sexuality and queer identity. Gay bars would play dance music and so gay audiences became discerning consumers of the music. As with any sort of subversive, subculture, once the mainstream, moneyed capitalist institutions got their hands on disco music, the music was distorted and white washed, getting the inherent campness wrong and the resultant was the polyestered tackiness.
But artists like Donna Summer continued to make innovative and dynamic music. “I Feel Love,” her 1977 single, was a sonic marvel: a futuristic, space-age banger, scored by a Moog synthesizer. The song is arguably the most influential singles of dance music, its echoes heard in every disco song, dance-pop, New Wave, New Romantic, electronica, house, and techno. After “I Feel Love,” pop music was never the same.
Though Summer personified dance music, she wasn’t content with staying in just one genre: she also looked to rock, soul, gospel, becoming one of the most creative and unique voices of her time. Critics wanted to dismiss disco music as a producer-driven genre (and yes, the producers and songwriters of the disco era were unheralded musical geniuses), but Summer wasn’t a singing mannequin or a cipher. An accomplished songwriter and producer, Summer was integral to the creation of her sound and music. She also had a beautiful and distinct voice, one that was malleable and flexible, able to drift like a cloud over the thick, programmed beats or blast through the productions with a fiery, gospel-hewed fervor.
Because Donna Summer was more than just a gorgeous face fronting dance music, but an actual artist, she was one of the few disco artists who was able to extend her career beyond the 1970s, adapting successfully to the synth-driven dance-pop and urban soul-pop. She started working with other dance producers in the 1980s and 1990s, hooking up with the ubiquitous Stock Aitken Waterman, Quincy Jones, and C+C Music Factory and recorded more excellent dance music that would extend her career into the new millennium, consistently landing in the top 10 on the dance charts.
More than any other singer of the disco genre, Donna Summer possessed a free and exuberant voice that captured, at once, the joy and exhilaration of dance music. Her sound, her music, remains essential when assessing the impact of dance music. She was an original originator, a Founding Mother of dance music, who would become its most important practitioner.
Important Highlights of Donna Summer
Crayons (2008): Summer’s final studio LP released whilst she was alive, this is a solid collection of dance and pop tunes that bear the mark of its time. As always, Summers enlivens everything with that glorious, clear-as-a-bell clarion of a voice (that has not aged). This is a stylish record of contemporary urban-pop, impeccably produced and performed with characteristic zeal.
“Power of Love” (2005): the death of Luther Vandross was a huge blow to the music community. Vandross was an inspired singer-songwriter and producer, lending his gargantuan talents to the likes of legendary divas like Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick. His voice was incredible – smooth, lyrical, expressive. He was the Mozart of romantic soul. On So Amazing: An All-Star Tribute to Luther Vandross, Summer reworks Vandross’ midtempo hit “Power of Love” into a hypnotic club tune.
“Love Is the Healer” (1999): an album track from a 1999 live album, this song is prime later-day Donna Summer. Written and produced with Nathan DiGesare and Thunderpuss, “Love Is the Healer” is high-tech house with great sonic accents, including the Gregorian chants (all the rage in the early 90s). Also, Summer laid down some of her best vocals on this dance hit.
“Carry On” (1997): the inaugural winner of the Best Dance Recording Grammy, this early 90s hit that became a dance staple in 1997 due to some fantastic remixes. It showed listeners that despite being in the business for more than two decades, both Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder were still able to make some great, vital dance music that still spoke to current audiences without pandering to current pop trends.
“Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)” (1994): the first single off a mid-90s compilation, this house-pop tune joined Summer with David Cole and Robert Clivillés of C+C Music Factory fame, and it’s no surprise that the union is inspired. Over the strutting, queer dance beat and pounding keyboards, Summer – at seeming vocal peak – joyfully belts over the bouncing percussion. Though her biggest hits were in the 1970s, songs like “Melody of Love” proved that in the 1990s, she was still as creative and vital a performer.
“This Time I Know It’s for Real” (1989): Don’t call it a comeback because Summer wasn’t really gone. By the end of the 1980s, Summer’s impact on pop radio had dwindled, so she turned to the British outfit, Stock Aitken Waterman (arguably the commercial – though not artistic – successors of Giorgio Moroder), who created hits for Kylie Minogue. Summer collaborated with the trio on this sprightly, churning tune, which married SAW’s assembly-line dance-pop production with her distinct and heaven-sent vocals.
“Dinner with Gershwin” (1987): Originally written and recorded by Brenda Russell, “Dinner with Gershwin” is a strange, eccentric tune in which Summer warbles the names of the famous names she’d like to hang out with (i.e. Rembrandt, Curie, Picasso, Earhart, Mahalia Jackson). The production – courtesy of Russell and Richard Perry is somewhat dated now, but the angular, clipped arrangement is exciting to hear and the lyrics are fun and just odd enough to make this a winning highlight of Summer’s 80s output.
“She Works Hard for the Money” (1983): early 80s pop music flirted with proletariat anthems, most notably with Dolly Parton’s paean to the working gal, “9 to 5.” For “She Works Hard for the Money,” Summer joins CCM giant Michael Omartian for this New Wave-inspired rocker about a working-class female worker, toiling away. Summer’s empathetic performance and the high-octane production are high spots on this corker of a tune. It’s an important song in Summer’s oeuvre because it also proved that the stigma of disco wouldn’t have much of an effect on her career.
“Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)” (1982): Quincy Jones was the most in-demand producer of the early 1980s due to his iconic work with Michael Jackson. He turned to Donna Summer with this tight, funky tune that boasts some of Jones’ distinct characteristics of his 80s work – lots of gaudy synths, rumbling, mile-wide bass, sassy background vocals, vocoder-vocal samples. There’s also a hot sax solo and a whistle. It’s over the top and somewhat fussy and crowded, but it’s still a great, fun jam.
I’m a Rainbow (recorded in 1981; released in 1996): this record was shelved and in the ensuing years it became a legend among Donna Summer fans. Looking to dance-pop, synth-pop, and New Wave, the album was a concerted effort to move away subtly from her disco roots. Along with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, Summer also works with other top-shelf talent like Harold Faltermeyer, Bruce Sudano, and Silvester Levay, putting together a superb collection of pop songs. The bright, neon-spiked “Melanie” is a major highlight (and should have been a single) and despite it being arguably, one of the worst songs ever written, Summer manages to even make Andrew Lloyd Webber’s garbagey “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” moving and affecting. A shame that this album was shelved.
“The Wanderer” (1980): Once Donna Summer entered the 1980s, she was facing an ever-shifting musical landscape. Though identified by disco, Summer always had designs on pop/rock, so this single is a fantastic indulgence. It’s a New Wave song with some post-punk inflections, crunchy guitars, and a bouncing beat. She affects a curling sneer of a voice when singing the song (there’s also a slightly rockabilly sound to some of Summer’s delivery). Like her other work of the 1980s, it showed a flexibility in her sound and abilities.
On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II (1979): Arguably one of the best greatest-hits collections released, this 16-track, double-LP compilation is a brilliant encapsulation of the most important artist of the disco ear and one of the most successful artists of the 1970s. The track list has the greatest disco music ever recorded. New tracks added to entice buyers do not sound like last minute additions, but are excellent songs in their own right: the title track is a classic and her duet with Barbra Streisand “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” is a camp classic.
“On the Radio” (1979): The title track of her greatest hits album, “On the Radio” follows the format of a classic Donna Summer tune: a sweeping ballad that will turn into a booty-shaking jam. The chorus of the song is crazily catchy and belies the tension in the lyrics which are quite moving, despite the discotheque pacing.
“No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” (1979): The pairing of Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand is destined to be a camp classic and a kitsch standard. Summer and Streisand were both enjoying unprecedented success in the 1970s, scoring hit singles and selling millions of records. Both divas – icons and queens of gay male fans – were known for their large and expressive voices. A song like this pit the two against each other, culminating in an exciting – yet still hilarious – match. Written by dance great Paul Jabara and Bruce Roberts, the song is a delicious, over-the-top disco tune that embraces a silliness and queeny queerness.
“Dim All the Lights” (1979): Donna Summer admitted that she originally wrote this song for Rod Stewart but was so in love with it, that she kept it for herself. The song is essentially two-in-one: it starts off as a bluesy ballad (I can hear Stewart singing this bit) before it boogies into a shuffling disco ditty.
“Bad Girls” (1979): One of Donna Summer’s most enduring hits is a sassy, saucy disco number which is a story song about prostitutes. Despite the subject matter, Summer imbues the song with a pointed, wary attitude. The backup vocalists add as much to the song’s appeal as Summer herself; they trade vocal licks with the diva, adding to the fun.
Bad Girls (1979): Arguably Donna Summer’s best studio LP which brings in a lot of her favorite sounds, including disco, rock, soul, and pop. It’s a diverse and wide-ranging record that allows for audiences to see just how masterful Summer is. The ballads show off Summer’s fantastic voice and the album’s innovative use of synthesizers and electronic instruments makes Bad Girls a seminal pop record of the 1970s. Producer Giorgio Moroder perfects 70s guitar-driven pop/rock as well as continue to develop the muscular, sweaty tech-driven dance music.
“Hot Stuff” (1979): Donna Summer’s embrace of rock sounds imply a second side career as a Tina Turner-esque rock goddess. Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte create a jumping, jangly disco-rock song that matches Summer’s rock star aspirations. There’s a fantastic undulating synthesizer as well as a crunchy rock guitar by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.
“Last Dance” (1978): Paul Jabara won a well-deserved Oscar for this song which was written for Thank God It’s Friday. The accompanying soundtrack is pretty brilliant with excellent disco tracks. Jabara is a master at writing dance music and captures the wistful, lilting mood of when the last song is called at the end of a night of dancing at a club. It encapsulates that kind of feeling of yearning and want as well as regret that comes up when a night winds down and romantic feelings are still left unspoken and unrequited. Donna Summer performs the song beautifully, finding the tone of Jabara’s lovelorn, reaching words.
“MacArthur Park” (1978): Summer’s cover of Jimmy Webb’s ballad is one of the most bewildering songs ever. Starting off as a slow, swinging, funk ballad with an urgent, piercing vocal performance before she unleashes a sneering laugh, as the strings and disco beat explode. Despite the quixotic lyrics, the production and arrangement adds a fiery earnestness which Summer matches with a passionate, committed performance (her snarling howls are great). The synth work is also brilliantly bonkers.
“I Feel Love” (1977): The mission of “I Feel Love” was straight forward: to change the face of dance music. Produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, the song is a deep, dark, space-age disco sci-fi number. Summer’s voice is a sensual force of a nature. Every dance song, every synth-pop song, every New Wave song owes its sound to “I Feel Love.”
Love to Love You Baby (1975): though the title track is the main draw (a 17-minute opus of funk and sex), the flip side of the album has been unfairly overwhelmed by the success of the song. Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder craft a string of perfect soul-pop songs with spirited vocals by Summer. The gutsy “Pandora’s Box” is a fantastic slice of piano-driven pop and “Need-a-Man Blues” is a whirling, driving tune. The title track is a classic, but the other cuts showcase Summer’s versatility (as well as Moroder’s and Bellotte’s).
“Love to Love You Baby” (1975): One of Donna Summer’s earliest hits, this song is arguably the sexiest song in history. You can hear in its production and writing, the blueprint of Madonna’s “Erotica” and Janet Jackson’s “Throb.” Few mainstream pop songs celebrated female sexuality and “Love to Love You Baby” was at once a feminist manifesto of feminine sensuality and a celebration of the sexy power of dance.
On what is her 75th birthday, A Seat in the Aisle is celebrating the work of rock legend Marianne Faithfull. The word ‘survivor’ is thrown around a lot in pop culture, but the word seems to be tailor-made for Faithfull, a woman who has weathered personal and career travails and obstacles. In the 1960s, her fresh, English rose beauty made her a precious star – she sang pretty folk songs with a lovely, ethereal voice. But life and art got in the way, and with 1979’s Broken English, she staged one of the most impressive comebacks in rock history. The Marianne Faithfull of Broken English was a rough, wary, world-weary songstress, no longer content trilling coffee house fare. Her pretty instrument was replaced by a gorgeously ravaged voice, splintered, blistered, and crumbling, like a ruin.
Marianne Faithfull became rock’s Marlene Dietrich. Rock’s Lotte Lenya. Rock’s Elaine Stritch. She was a singer that applied her destroyed voice to a catalog of songs that matched the ditch-deep voice and hard-won gravitas. She wrote songs that told stories of her storied life, writing from the perspective of a wise sage. She also looked to Brecht, Coward, Weill, creating a repertoire of a brilliant storyteller.
She is an original, one who in her nearly 60-year career still surprises her audiences. In 2021, after decades of music, she returns with an album of spoken-word poetry, proving that she is one of her generation’s greatest performing artists.
Marianne Faithfull’s Greatest Moments
She Walks in Beauty (2021): Faithfull collaborated with Warren Ellis and recorded a collection of spoken-word poetry, mining the great works of Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Tennyson. Ellis creates a lovely, lilting soundscape for Faithfull’s expressive readings. Recorded during the pandemic, during which Faithfull herself was struck by the disease, She Walks in Beauty is a poignant album – a possible swansong – for a career studded with idiosyncratic turns.
Negative Capability (2018): Faithfull’s talent as a song interpreter is unparalleled but she’s also a strong songwriter, herself. If this is Faithfull’s final album of music, then it’s a tremendous high note. At this point in her career, her voice is wizened and thickened, flecked with a sadness. The original tunes on the record are moving, but the highlight is a revisit of her iconic signature “As Tears Go By” which is immeasurably improved with a regal, tragic elegance.
Horses and High Heels (2011): A fantastic album of covers in which Faithfull gives her inimitable stamp. The best part of the album is Faithfull’s affectionate nod towards her 60s past with her gravely – yet hopeful – take on Carole King’s elegiac “Goin’ Back.”
Easy Come, Easy Go (2008): Faithfull’s a singular artist but when paired with the right duet partner, she can create magic. On this album of covers which includes songs from Dolly Parton, Bessie Smith, Smokey Robinson, and even Leonard Bernstein, Faithfull is able to apply her particular brand of cabaret-rock to rock and pop-era tunes. She’s gives a gutsy take on Parton’s “Down from Dover” and a gloriously camp version of the Motown chestnut “Ooh Baby Baby” with queer rock icon ANOHNI. The album’s strangest but most entrancing moment is a jazzy duet with Jarvis Cocker on the Sondheim classic “Somewhere” from West Side Story.
Before the Poison (2004): PJ Harvey invigorates Faithful in what could be best described as a late-career renaissance in which she collaborates with young, fresh producers and singer-songwriters. Producers Harvey, Nick Cave, Hal Willner, Rob Ellis are able to reacquaint listeners with Faithfull’s inner rock chick by giving her a platter of indie rock and jangly, guitar rock.
Kissin’ Time (2002): With Kissin’ Time, Faithfull sees her brand of rock filtered through thick, glossy, electronic rock. Hooking up with a diverse range of producers including Billy Corgan, Dave Stewart, Jarvis Cocker, and Étienne Daho, Faithfull’s inner New Wave diva is unearthed. Though she’s never sang on tracks as smooth as these, she still manages to pierce through the sheen with her heartache. Her tribute to Nico on “Song for Nico” is warm and lovely; and her homage to 60s Brill Building pop, “Something Good” is nostalgic and fun. The best track is her elegant hymn “I’m on Fire,” a brilliant collaboration with Corgan that is arguably her best song from her later career.
Vagabond Ways (1999): By 1999, Faithfull had dedicated most of her career to theatre hall songs, and this was another comeback for the singer. It’s a fine return-to-form with a collection of solid rock/pop songs that remind listeners that despite her exalted, lofty reputation, she’s still a masterful rock singer. Producer Daniel Lanois, most famous for his work with U2 and Emmylou Harris, brings his atmospheric sound to the record, but is far more restrained, allowing for the sturdy bone structure of the tunes to shine.
20th Century Blues (1996): As great a rock singer as Faithfull is, her strange and eccentric voice is a perfect match for art songs and cabaret. Her affinity for these songs – written by legendary tunesmiths like Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Noël Coward – highlights her chanteuse persona. She’s a clear disciple of Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya, using the deep tones and shades in her gritty voice to add new sounds to these classic songs. “Falling in Love” again is a swooning highlight and her take on “Mack the Knife” transports listeners to a piano bar in the Weimar Republic.
A Secret Life (1995): Faithfull is paired with the moody, dense Angelo Badalamenti (best known for his scoring work on Twin Peaks) for a gorgeous, lush album that finds a ponderous beauty in her voice. It’s a cinematic record, one that is large and expansive and includes some of her best singing. Aesthetically, it’s one of her most accessible albums, but there’s still a Gothic darkness to the songs.
Blazing Away (1990): Blazing Away works both as a greatest hits record and a chronicle of Faithfull’s talent as a life performer. Recorded in St Anne’s Cathedral in New York City, Faithfull seems inspired by the grandeur of the venue and imbues her performances with a faded regal queenly elegance. The set list is a testament to Faithfull’s legacy and mythic history. Songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s populate the track listing, and Faithfull’s performances are evergreen.
Strange Weather (1987): In a career marked by a series of comebacks, Strange Weather is one of her greatest. An important album in her career as it was the work that gave audiences a fully-realized glimpse at Faithfull’s talents – not only as a rock singer but a genius songstress. The songs on Strange Weather indulge in Faithfull’s love of German art songs, folk songs, and dance hall ballads. The instrumentation on this record is lush and full, supporting Faithfull’s voice (which possesses a surprising power). Though Broken English is the record that reset Marianne Faithfull’s career, Strange Weather is the record that established her genius.
Marianne Faithfull’s Greatest Hits (1987): Faithfull’s recording career before Broken English is difficult to sift through – there are some inspired moments, some real songs of beauty, but there are also a lot of cookie-cutter folk-pop songs that feel bland and anonymous. That is why this collection is a great distillation of her 60s work. It includes covers of 60s pop songs like “Yesterday,” “Monday, Monday,” and Brill Building stuff like “Something Better” and “With You in Mind.” Faithfull’s voice is shockingly different for those familiar with raspy machete of a voice. Not all of the tunes are lighter-than air, though: her early version of “As Tears Go By” has a mournful quality and “Sister Morphine” has a spunky power. For Faithfull completists, this is an important entry in her discography.
Broken English (1979): Broken English is Faithfull’s magnum opus and her greatest work. It’s also a record that brought audiences to the ragged, tattered voice that would be a perfect vehicle for her particular brand of brilliance. Though a thoroughly British performer, Broken English‘s smarmy, dirty, 70s disco-rock brought the singer to a pre-Giuliani New York. It’s a punk-pop album with licks of New Wave, dance, and rock. Each song – even the tracks she didn’t have a hand in writing – is personal and Faithfull is able to inhabit the voice of the characters. As a singing actress, she does a dizzying job conveying the desperation and insanity of the titular narrator in “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” Despite the studio burnish, the album has an appealingly torn sound. This is an indispensable entry in the singer’s career.
On the ’12 Days of Christmas’ I’m sharing my favorite Christmas movies, albums, Christmas episodes, specials, one for each day until we get to Christmas Day.
Mariah Carey has been crowned the Queen of Christmas because she’s the first pop star to write a for real Christmas standard. Her Christmas standard, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is the best-selling holiday single by a female artist and one of the most successful and played songs over the Christmas season.
For a good reason. “All I Want for Christmas” is a genius update on the Phil Spector Christmas song. Written by Carey and her longtime collaborator, Walter Afanasieff, the Christmas pop tune picks up cues from Spector’s classic tune “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” with a spot-on recreation of the Wall of Sound. There’s a bouncy beat to the song and a deceptively simple hook that is the hallmark of the best of 1960s pop-soul like Spector or Motown. The instrumentation includes a pounding piano, a basic back beat, joyful chimes, and a raucous background chorus that reminds us of the Ronettes.
“All I Want for Christmas” is the centerpiece of her 1994 holiday album, Merry Christmas. It’s a lush, happy collection that mixes standards and originals. For the most part, Carey chooses to stick to traditional arrangements (with the notable exception of “Joy to the World” – more on that in a minute). She sets the appropriate tone for the album which does two things: successfully apes the kind of holiday music that’s piped on sound systems in department stores and shopping malls as well as fits comfortably into her discography. By Merry Christmas‘s release, Carey had put out three hit albums and 16 singles (eight of which went to number one on the Billboard singles chart). She was an established artist and exactly in the kind of position to record a Christmas record.
And with “All I Want for Christmas” Carey joined the ranks of Irving Berlin, Mel Tormé, and Franz Xaver Gruber as the composer of an iconic Christmas carol. Though Carey is an accomplished pop songwriter who has written some fantastic tunes, little will approach the brilliance of her loving tribute to Phil Spector.
And though “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is a fantastic paean to Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, we get to hear Carey’s take on the real thing with a spirited cover of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” originally recorded by Darlene Love. Carey’s take is an uncannily faithful interpretation of Love’s version, the major difference being the tone of Carey’s voice vs Love’s; the younger singer has a smoother, pretty, poppier timbre, whilst Love’s got a rock and roll thunderclap of a growl. But like Love, Carey does a great job in conveying the sheer joy of the tune.
Carey’s rendition of the Christmas standard “Santa Clause Is Coming to Town” is also a salute to Spector, owing lots to his version of the song – recorded by the Crystals – featuring the gospelly chorus, ringing sleigh bells, and the steady beat that is a key sound of Spector’s classic Christmas album.
When Whitney Houston recorded the soundtrack to her 1996 romantic comedy, The Preacher’s Wife, she was able to finally record the kind of gospel-inspired music people were hoping she would. Carey – a clear disciple of Houston – is also a singer whose voice finds an invigorating soulfulness with church music. Carey hasn’t recorded a gospel record but Merry Christmas is the closest thing. And she’s an obvious vocal virtuoso and employing her remarkable 5-octave voice on sacred Christmas standards makes for a transcendent listen.
The album opens with “Silent Night” and it’s a heavenly performance with Carey joined by a gorgeous choir. Even better is her truly majestic rendition of “O Holy Night” which is a brilliant testament to Carey’s astounding gifts. She employs her whistle register at the song’s peak, stunning listeners with her talents. Her robust and powerful handling of the traditional “Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child” further proves that she possesses one of the most supple, soulful voices in pop music. And to Carey’s credit, her original gospel song “Jesus Born on This Day” sounds like a gospel standard (and the kids’ choir doesn’t sound treacly or cloying).
The best moments of Merry Christmas look to the 1960s and to the church. But a modern 1990s Christmas album would also look to current pop radio, too, which means that there are two notable moments that Carey panders to contemporary audiences. Predictably, these aren’t the most memorable moments on the album. The first is “Miss You Most (At Christmas Time)” which is the somewhat sappy pop ballad that sounds like pretty much all of her slow songs that she wrote with Afanasieff. The other nod to trendier sounds is a house-pop take on “Joy to the World.” Mariah Carey is a great dance-pop singer and her gigantic, soulful wail will remind her of other gospel-hewed dance divas like Loleatta Holloway, Donna Summer, Ann Nesby, or Whitney Houston. There’s nothing wrong with souping up a chestnut like “Joy to the World” for the clubs, but it would have been great if Carey had hooked up with some cutting edge dance producers to really do something awesome and subversive to the song (the album’s version has some punch but feels a bit safe – the remixes are far more interesting)
Carey’s concessions to contemporary pop notwithstanding, Merry Christmas is a lovely, heartwarming holiday record that is rightly embraced by Christmas music lovers. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has overwhelmed Merry Christmas and has become a perennial favorite, but the album is still warmly remembered and a fun record that is required listening during the holiday season.
Some 16 years later, Carey released a sequel to her holiday album, Merry Christmas II You. The second album came at a very different time in Carey’s career. In the years between 1994 and 2010, the singer had experience some astounding highs but some distressing lows. Merry Christmas II You came after Carey’s much-ballyhooed comeback with her 2005 album, The Emancipation of Mimi. Carey’s second Christmas album is a solid affair, though it lacks some of the warmth and joy of the first album; Merry Christmas II You feels somewhat more cynical, with Carey sounding somewhat strained – and the song selections and production feel like a forced attempt at capturing the magic of Merry Christmas.
Still, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is rightly considered a classic and Mariah Carey’s rightly considered the Queen of Christmas. And Merry Christmas is a great insight into how she got that yuletide crown.
Barbra Streisand is a prolific recording artist with over 60 albums to her credit. With that kind of history, it makes sense that there were some songs that were left on the cutting room floor. Now, in her 6th decade of performing, she has dipped into her considerable archives to gift fans with songs that they’ve never heard. The span of Release Me 2, the sequel to her first compilation of unreleased tracks, runs from 1962 to 2014. It’s interesting to hear the stylistic choices and changes she’s made in the 50 years (it’s also interesting to hear just how strong and powerful her voice has endured in that time).
For Release Me 2, Streisand turns to mainly contemporary pop songwriters like Paul Williams, Burt Bacharach, Carole King, and Barry Gibb. Of course, because this is Barbra Streisand, there are also nods to the Great American Songbook with Harold Arlen’s and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg’s “Right As Rain” from the 1944 musical Bloomer Girl and longtime Streisand pals/collaborators, Michel Legrand, and Alan and Marilyn Bergman are repped with “One Day (A Prayer)” – both songs were recorded in the 1960s when the singer was a freakishly talented up-and-comer. But the bulk of the 10 tracks are from her fruitful 1970s period when she was scoring top 20 hits and she was looking to contemporary pop to sustain her career.
When assessing the quality of the songs on Release Me 2, it’s a bit surprising that they were left off the albums. The songs all work well with Streisand’s talents and none of the songs are too stylistically different for her comfort. She sounds best with the songwriters who are influenced by traditional and vocal pop, so it’s no surprise that when the passionate “Once You’ve Been in Love” (written by Legrand and the Bergmans) from 1973 sounds gorgeous (Streisand’s arguably at her vocal peak on the tune). Streisand also does wonders with Carole King’s “You Light Up My Life” that was meant for her 1974 album ButterFly (one of Streisand’s worst studio LPs – and honestly, her rendition of King’s tune is better than anything that ended up on the album). And though Streisand has recorded a lot of duets in her career, she isn’t the most generous duet partner, but she’s absolutely charming trilling sweetly with Kermit the Frog on the classic “Rainbow Connection” (which was cut from her 1979 water-logged concept album Wet) Streisand’s laid back charm and ease with the iconic song shows that she could’ve succeeded putting out a children’s record. On the first Release Me album, Streisand, did a revelatory rendition of Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” Newman’s “Living without You” is given an excellent reading, as well, being able to do a great job telling the song’s story about loneliness and lost love.
After the 1980s, Streisand’s recording career became far more sporadic and spotty, as she would indulge in some ponderous, overproduced adult/contemporary pop production. This issue is illustrated with a 1994 tune “Sweet Forgiveness” written by schlock masters Walter Afanasieff and John Bettis. Streisand’s performance is typically spotless, but overly cautious and the song is boring; and “If Only You Were Mine” with Barry Gibb for her 2005 album Guilty Pleasures is a swinging trifle that is so light and inconsequential that it practically disappears. But her 2014 duet with country icon Willie Nelson is very good (it’s weird that it was left out of the final product). Yes, it’s overly slick and polished (Afanasieff and Babyface poured buckets and buckets of studio gloss over the song), but the lyrics are quite clever (referencing both icons’ histories) and the lilting, waltz-like country swing is pretty and sweet.
One of the unintended consequences of having Streisand release songs from her past is that it highlights just how much her recording career had suffered as her superstardom grew. Though her voice kept up through the years, she seemed braver more idiosyncratic and distinct in the 1960s and 1970s; one hopes that she’ll be inspired by flipping through these audio memories and go back to these simpler kinds of songs that flattered her beautiful voice and peerless interpretive skills.
Something very important was happening. It wasn’t just about the music.
In the summer of 1969, hundreds of thousands of people convened on Mount Morris Park in Harlem to witness pop music history. For six weeks, some of Black music’s most powerful and amazing artists entertained large crowds with soul, jazz, pop, and gospel music. The 1960s were drawing to a violent and dispiriting close, with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy. Rebellions ripped through the innercity and Black communities were targeted by the police. In this tumultuous context, the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival was a seeming salve to bring peace, love, and art to a community that was struggling for equality.
Despite the high attendance and the superstar caliber of the entertainers, the festival has slipped into unjust obscurity until the careful curation of Questlove, the drummer and frontman of the hip-hop band, the Roots. A reported four hours has been whittled down to a tidy two hours, most of the performances truncated to accommodate interviews with attendees as well as participants. Though it would’ve been great to see the performances in full – and I’d love to see the full four hours – Summer of Soul is a fantastic tribute to a beautiful moment in pop and contemporary history when artists of different genres were able to get together to give happiness and escape to their audiences.
The talent that graced the stage for the festival is dizzying. By the late 1960s, soul music was going through an evolution that saw the gospel-influenced popular music taking on psychedelic sounds that reflected the times. This evolution was illustrated with a performance by the successful pop-soul group the 5th Dimension which was singing their big hit “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from the Broadway musical Hair. Members Billy Davis, Jr. and Marilyn McCoo are on hand to talk about their participation in the festival and how important it was for the group, which was dragged by criticisms that they were “too white.” In one of the film’s many moving moments, McCoo is moved to tears as she watches a younger version of herself with her bandmates performing at this once-in-a-lifetime event.
Along with the Fifth Dimension, other legendary acts like Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder narrate their performances. Staples, in particular, has a great account in which she talks about performing with gospel great Mahalia Jackson, when the two were introduced by a young Jesse Jackson to sing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Staples and Jackson duet on the spiritual with a transcendent power that is simply breathtaking. The Edwin Hawkins Singers also provide a spiritual highlight in the film with their classic “Oh Happy Day.”
Though the church songs were among the most moving, the film chronicles pop superstars Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin, Sly and the Family Stone, and Gladys Knight acknowledging that their involvement with the festival was an important turning point in their careers in which they assessed the direction of their sound. Wonder – who was a mere 19 years-old when performing at the festival – reminisces about his participation in the show and how it informed the kind of artist he wanted to be as an adult. Ruffin, of the Temptations, who is shown performing a mind-blowing version of “My Girls” (though his vocals are sandpapery and rough, he hits some gravity-defying whistle notes), represents a bridge between the respectability politics of the Motown assembly line and its tux and evening gown aesthetic to the more modern sounds of the festival. An important highlight of the film is the appearance of Nina Simone who commands the stage with a regal presence. After a performance of her song “Young, Gifted, and Black,” Simone recites a poem to the appreciative crowds, reading the fiery and powerful lyrics of David Nelson of the Last Poets.
One of the things that Summer of Soul indicates is the intersection of politics and the music festival. Organizer Tony Lawrence is portrayed as a canny and impressive impresario who is able to parlay his talents to network with and ingratiate himself to political, cultural, and business leaders of the time. New York mayor John Lindsey is portrayed as a sympathetic ally to Lawrence’s agenda, appearing at the festival, being coined a “blue-eyed soul brother” and several interview subjects testify to Lindsey’s allegiance to the Civil Rights Movement.
The participation of activists Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Denise Oliver-Velez is an excellent way to firm the connection between the use of art in promoting social justice and racial equality. Hunter-Gault, a journalist for The New York Times, spoke in the film to the importance and power of embracing the word “Black” and its coinage being so significant at the time; scenes in the film moved away from the concert stage to beauty shops, barber shops, boutiques, as the media began to cover different forms of Black beauty, including hair and fashion, which took its roots from Afro-centrism. These are very important scenes that highlight the importance of the festival and how it was was one part of a larger tapestry of a response to the racism and oppression that met Black and brown people.
When I saw the film, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos innovated space tourism. During the festival, man walked on space. In a smart juxtaposition of reactions, the film showed the news media gauging the interest in the lunar landing: white respondents were enthusiastic, marveling at the technological innovation; Black respondents were less impressed, highlighting that the high cost of these endeavors could be directed toward urban renewal and to combat homelessness and poverty. This instance is only one of many when dark parallels are found: police brutality, communities reacting to violence with rebellion, politicians neglecting the concerns of communities of color. What Summer of Soul does best is not only capture a beautiful moment but the conditions that made such a beautiful moment necessary. Attendee Musa Jackson summed it up best when he remembered, “It was incredible. Families. Fathers. Mothers. Kids running around – I was one of those kids. Beautiful, beautiful women. Beautiful men. It was like seeing royalty.”