A Celebration of Donna Summer: The Pioneering Queen of Dance

still from the video of “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiró)”
(dir. Rocky Schenck) BMG Music Entertainment, 1999. Donna Summer YouTube Channel

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.

Crayons 1 by Summer, Donna (2004-05-31)
Crayons

“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.

Love Is The Healer
“Love Is the Healer”

“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.

Carry on Pt.2 by Summer, Donna, Giorgio Moroder (1995-05-01)
“Carry On”

“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.

Melody of Love
“Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)”

“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.

DONNA SUMMER / DINNER WITH GERSHWIN
“Dinner with Gershwin”

“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.

I'm a Rainbow (2014 Remaster)
I’m a Rainbow

“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 by Donna Summer (2012-08-08)
On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II

“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.

Enough Is Enough / No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) [Vinyl Single 7'']
“No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”

“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.

Bad Girls
Bad Girls

“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 VINYL LP DONNA SUMMER 1976[GTLP008]
Love to Love You Baby

“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.

In celebration of Marianne Faithfull: Rock’s Greatest Chanteuse

Still from the music video for “The Gypsy Faerie Queen”
(dir. John Maybury), Prettybird LTD, 2018. Marianne Faithfull YouTube Channel.

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.

She Walks in Beauty (with Warren Ellis)
She Walks in Beauty

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.

Negative Capability (Deluxe Version)
Negative Capability

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.”

Horses And High Heels
Horses and High Heels

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.

Easy Come Easy Go by Marianne Faithfull (2008-11-14)
Easy Come, Easy Go

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.

Before the Poison
Before the Poison

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.

Kissin Time
Kissin’ Time

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.

Vagabond Ways
Vagabond Ways

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.

20th Century Blues
20th Century Blues

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.

A Secret Life
A Secret Life

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.

Blazing Away-Live by Marianne Faithfull (2006-05-03)
Blazing Away

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.

Strange Weather
Strange Weather

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.

Greatest Hits by Marianne Faithfull (1990-05-03)
Marianne Faithfull’s Greatest Hits

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.

Broken English
Broken English

Rap legends and icons Salt ‘N’ Pepa become pop superstars with their commercial blockbuster Very Necessary

Very NecessaryBy 1993, Salt ‘N’ Pepa were icons and legends of rap. They brought a witty, street smart, sass to their particular brand of rap that intersected with pop, house, and R&B. Their third single, “Push It” released in 1987 was a classic jam. Its instantly-recognizable synth hook and infectious joy made the fledgling rap group into hip-hop divas.

Between 1987 and 1993, the trio enjoyed a string of hit singles – three of the songs, “Expression,” “Do You Want Me,” and “Let’s Talk About Sex” were mainstream pop hits, charting in the top 40 (they even had more success on the UK charts). “Let’s Talk About Sex” was a great song that summed up the group’s appeal – strong, assertive, and proud of their sexuality. The song had an alternative version, “Let’s Talk About AIDS” was an indication of the group’s social conscience and their commitment to social betterment through their music.

But as successful as they were in the late 1980s, they found their greatest success with their 1993 album Very Necessary. The album – the group’s fourth – came at an important moment in pop music as well as the band’s life. Salt ‘N’ Pepa was assembled by rap music impresario Hurby Azor, who put the group together as a class project in music production school. Cheryl “Salt” James and Sandra “Pepa” Denton were pals from school, working at Sears. They added their DJ, Deidra “Spinderella” Roper (after their original DJ, Latoya Hanson left), and were christened Salt ‘N’ Pepa. They were a breath of fresh air in the mid 1980s when the genre was dominated by male artists. Their music spoke to an audience that was oft-ignored by the genre. They weren’t the first female rappers but they some of the first to make a major impact on popular culture, finding mainstream success, gold records, and Grammy nominations.

Very Necessary came at a time in pop music when so much of it was in flux. Seattle grunge was becoming a major force, though mainstream pop stars like Whitney Houston, Madonna, and Janet Jackson were still dominating the industry, but their brand of highly-produced, carefully manicured sound was starting to sound out-of-sync with the seemingly more authentic sounds of grunge and the Riot Grrrl movement. Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s ascension to multi-platinum pop superstars was perfect because they added a much-needed new perspective to pop radio that was at-times more interesting and deeper than the uber-controlled images of the impenetrable pop icons like Houston or Jackson.

The record is at once timely and timeless. Azor once again took the majority of the production and songwriter, but the ladies had a bigger hand in controlling the sound and music. The songs on Very Necessary are smart, canny pop tunes that are seamless in their tart combination of rough and smooth. Azor is a brilliant urban-pop producer and knows how to write and create some fantastic music and he’s a genius at being able to craft tunes that best represent the women’s feminist image.

The singles off Very Necessary: “Shoop,” “Whatta Man,” and “None of Your Business” were superb. “Whatta Man” is a glorious paean to the love of a good man – it’s fitting that the song features the sublime vocal work of En Vogue, the 90s answer to the Supremes. It was a wonderful meeting of two powerhouse groups that changed music forever. “Shoop” was a sinuous, slinky number, that was an assertive anthem of female sexuality. And best of all, “None of Your Business” was a righteous rant against the sexist, toxic double standards women face.

The success of the singles and the album was inevitably aided by visual appeal of the extremely videogenic trio. MTV was at its peak of musical power (it would be a scant few years before the channel would abandon its original format of showing music videos and become a cesspool of reality tabloid trash) The videos were highly-choreographed affairs that were in heavy rotation. For a time, Salt ‘N’ Pepa became major figures of the latter period of MTV. From 1993 to 1994, the trio had a banner year, selling millions of albums and singles, starring in music videos, showing up on television, touring, and eventually winning a Grammy, one of the few female rap acts to score the coveted trophy.

After Very Necessary, the band was in a simultaneously stressful but privileged position. Sales of Very Necessary were at some 5 million copies and they enjoyed a high profile. But their relationship with Azor soured as they alleged financial improprieties. Shedding themselves of their svengali, they took their time before releasing fifth (and last album-to-date) album Brand New in 1997, their first without the input of Azor. The long hiatus cost the band some of their cache and though Brand New went gold, it was a significant drop from their last album, failing to score any hit singles.

Since then, the band went through some professional and personal changes, including a reality show, a Lifetime biography, as well as a rift that led to Roper’s departure. They still maintain a schedule of appearances and tours, headlining club dates and performing at festivals, including Pride events. They have yet to return for a full-length album (there have been one-off singles throughout the years after Brand New), but Very Necessary is such an important moment of pop history that it made Salt ‘N’ Pepa legends.

Country superstars Chicks and Taylor Swift release their best work in the worst of time

The pandemic has had an effect on creative people – the time off has given lots of folks time to work on their craft. Some people learned a new skills, a new language. There has been a lot of baking happening. In pop music, artists have seen album release dates delayed, tours postponed, and the current reckoning that America has gone through in terms of race relations has made lots of musicians look inward at what kind of impact they’ve had when it comes to racism.

The Dixie Chicks have responded to these shifts in consciousness by dropping the “Dixie” and are now just the Chicks (at least they didn’t steal the stage name of a Black indie blues artist like another best-selling country band) Their last album, Taking the Long Way, came out 14 years ago. It was a response to the backlash they faced when Chick member Natalie Maines made critical comments about George W. Bush and the Iraq war in March of 2003, a few days before the US invaded Iraq. After they made the comments, their music was banned from radio stations, country music dragged them, Toby Keith became an arch nemesis of theirs (featuring Photoshopped pics of Maines with Saddam Hussein at his shows), and they saw their fortunes dip dramatically. They were canceled before we were saying canceled. Taking the Long Way was a mature, adult-pop album that spoke to the destruction of their career.

Gaslighter [Explicit]

With Gaslighter (Columbia), the return after a long hiatus (which included side projects, solo albums, guest appearances) with easily their best album of their career. Though nominally a country album, the Chicks have folded in pop sounds to create a large, expensive-sounding record that shows that these ladies have not lost anything after their break. The women share airtight harmonies that are positively heavenly, and are still writing lyrics that are feisty, funny, and fierce.

So, one would assume that Gaslighter would be the woke Dixie Chicks album, but other than the militant and confrontational “March March” the album deals primarily with matters of the (broken) heart, particularly Maines’ divorce. The opening is the spunky title track that blasts Maines’ ex-husband, excoriating his greed and boorish behavior. It’s the kind of country song that country divas have sang since the 70s, except instead of being tear-stained, it’s a middle finger.

That spirited attitude carries over to the other songs, as well. The kind of attitude that prompted these ladies to stand up to the president of the United States permeates this record. On the funny “Tights on My Boat” the song opens with Maines cheekily cursing her cheating lover with the pithy, “I hope you die peacefully in your sleep/Just kidding, I hope it hurts like you hurt me.” Like “Goodbye, Earl” the song casts the Chicks as pissed off and looking for revenge. And on the plaintive “Set Me Free,” Maines gives a passionate performance as she pleads to her lover to let her go.

To help create the diverse sounds for Gaslighter, the Chicks enlist the help of Jack Antonoff (Lana Del Rey, Lorde, St. Vincent), who is sympathetic to the band’s country roots but is more interested in remaking them into pop stars. “March March” the album’s nod to chaos in the outside world has the Chicks sing over a moody, spare soundscape that recalls Massive Attack. And the empowering “Julianna Calm Down” is an understated synth-dance number.

folklore [Explicit]

The story of Taylor Swift is that she’s a young, beautiful singer-songwriter who uses her music to right wrongs of exes. It’s a reductive take on the singer who is actually very talented. Starting from 2014’s shiny 1989, she has progressively gotten better and more brilliant as a performer and folklore is the work of a true artist. It’s an instantly classic triumph, its ruminative tone fitting to the unease of the world.

There are transcendent moments of elegance that are stirring on folklore. “My Years Ricochet” is a very angry song about a disastrous love that’s gone terribly wrong, but it’s awash in feathery vocals and a bruised performance by Swift. So even though she admits that she didn’t end the relationship “with grace,” the song is almost achingly beautiful.

The song’s first single “Cardigan” is also similarly pretty and lilting, with heartbreaking lyrics and lush, precious backing. The songwriting is classic Taylor Swift with astute specificity and she has a knack with a metaphor, penning the fantastic line, “And when I felt like I was an old cardigan/
Under someone’s bed/You put me on and said I was your favorite.” It’s a charming turn of phrase.

Like his work with the Chicks, Antonoff does some incredible work with Swift. “This Is Me Trying” is a complex, epic song with shuffling synths, some ghostly reverb that recalls those great heartbreak synth-pop ballads of the 80s. It’s a wonderful song with the production stately and elegant, with a swirling wall of synthesizers, vocals that achieves a cinematic grandeur.

The cool thing about folklore is to see just how much Swift has developed into a writer. She recalls Carly Simon at her best, especially in the fantastic “Mad Woman” a feminist tune in which Swift destroys the sexism of gaslighters who set out to make the woman look crazy. The lyrics are pointed and punch up at the asshole who is pushing Swift’s buttons, and when she warns “Now I breathe flames each time I talk/My cannons all firing at your yacht”you believe that she’s a formidable foe.

What’s so striking about folklore is the creative maturity found throughout the songs. In the dirge-like “Epiphany” she creates a poignant and stirring tableau of war and struggling for life in the hospital. folklore‘s main themes are about love and she writes about these personal issues with great skill, but she also has a striking ability to write about weightier topics with darker notes.

folklore is a crowning achievement and is easily one of the best albums of the year. It’s a very sad and beautiful record with gurgling beeps, strumming guitars, sorrowful vocals, with a lyrical encyclopedia of hurt and regret. The layers of sounds and emotions make for a wonderful album.

Though the Chicks’ Gaslighter is an excellent album – expertly done – it can’t help but pale in comparison to the Swift record simply because of its emotional heft. The Chicks’ album is a bright, loud, colorful blast of noise. Though the album reaches some spiritual depths, it doesn’t feel as much of a revelation as Swift’s genre-defining folklore.

Vanessa Williams finds pop success with ‘The Right Stuff’ after a potentially career-destroying scandal

The Right Stuff

Once upon a time, Miss America meant something. It was a legitimate stepping stone for wannabe entertainers or TV presenters. The history of the beauty pageant has made household names out of many past winners, none more so than 1984 crowned victor, Vanessa Williams. Williams’ win was historic because she was the contest’s first Black winner. When nude pictures were published in Penthouse, Williams’ career seemed to implode. She felt compelled to relinquish her crown. In an interview with Robin Roberts, she said of the controversy, “it took every ounce of credibility that I had … and wiped it out.”

Williams’ career goals pointed toward a career on stage, combining her musical talents. She studied at Syracuse as a musical theater major. For her talent at the Miss America contest, Williams predicted her stage success by performing “Happy Days Are Here Again”

In rebuilding her career, Williams turned to pop music. She released her debut album The Right Stuff in the summer of 1988. The record earned the singer three Grammy nominations. Though her sophomore album, The Comfort Zone (1991) contained her biggest hit “Save the Best for Last,” The Right Stuff is a solid debut and an important one in establishing one of the most impressive comebacks in show business history.

The urban-pop landscape in 1988 was largely dominated by dance-oriented songs or quiet storm ballads. The Right Stuff is a collection of pop songs that were heavily-influenced by Black pop radio. The aural stamp of Janet Jackson’s Control looms largely over the album. Largely produced by Rex Salas, The Right Stuff earned a gold album and Williams enjoyed a string of hits and it set the stage for a lucrative pop career that moved steadily into the 1990s, and included two multi-platinum albums, two gold-selling albums, a clutch of pop songs, including a Disney movie theme.

The Right Stuff opens with the title track – a dance song that sounds like an outtake from a Janet Jackson album. Rex Salas does a solid job of emulating the synth-funk of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, while Williams does a good job of aping Jackson’s petulant feminism. The song moved along with twinkly keyboards and a thick, thumping bass. Williams’ pitch-perfect voice is classy and elegant (Williams is one of the most regal of pop stars) but she also adopts a bratty hauteur which would later become integral to her public persona.

The album’s second album, another throbbing dance song, “Be a Man” is another song that bears the characteristics of the era’s New Jack Swing sound – a popular movement in urban-pop music that combined funk, dance, and soul, with a swinging beat. Like “The Right Stuff,” “Be a Man” is a strutting dance song that apes the peevish attitude of a Janet Jackson record.

The album’s first ballad “Dreamin'” was also Williams’ first top 10 hit. The song has since become a standard on adult contemporary radio and quiet storm radio, as well as smooth jazz stations. The song allowed Williams to set aside the sullen voice of her dance diva side and it indulged in her estimable crooning skills. Williams would become known for her dramatic pop ballads, and she does a great job belting over the song’s synths and drum machines. Her voice is a honeyed instrument with a bell-like clarity.

“If You Really Love Him” is another mid-tempo with a sultry performance by Williams. Like much of the album, the production is dated – cluttered with clanging drums and synths. Salas produced this track, as well, again mirroring what was happening on R&B radio at the time.

Following is another dance song and another single, “(He’s Got) The Look” a thick and busy ditty. It was produced by Kool & the Gang member Amir Bayyan who stuffs the song with a buzzy synthesizer and a wide, slapping bass, and a soloing trumpet that steals the show in the song’s instrumental break. Like with the ballads, Williams doesn’t adopt a surly attitude and instead offers a full-bodied, joyful performance with some nice vocal runs throughout the song.

Another dance song follows, “I’ll Be the One” and it sounds rather derivative, only instead of Janet Jackson’s Minneapolis sound, it borrows from Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, which makes sense as Lewis Martineé is the credited song producer, and it does sound like something he would’ve crafted for the Miami-based freestyle band, Exposé . The song is arguably the album’s weak spot – it’s a nondescript radio-pop song and Williams fails to inject much personality in the song. Martineé’s contribution is followed by another Salas song, “Security” that again has Williams do a credible Janet Jackson impression.

“Darlin’ I” is a piano ballad that sounds like the kind of love songs that would give Vanessa Williams her biggest hits in the early 1990s. As with “Dreamin'” the song features some of the singer’s best work on the record. Some have accused Williams of being bland at times, but this is a great showcase for the singer’s full vocal powers, including an impressive wail near the end of the song. If any song made a case for Vanessa Williams’ career as a legit recording artist, it’s this song.

“Am I Too Much?” is a funny dance song with a affected performance by Williams, that would be a perfect track for a drag queen’s lip sync. So much of her career has been encouraged by queer audiences. It’s another throwaway song that does nothing for the album, but it’s fun nonetheless.

“Can This Be Real” is a beautiful, stately ballad and moves on to the album’s closer, “Whatever Happens.” Accompanied by simply a tinny keyboard, Williams’ unadorned vocals shine. Unlike the other ballads, Williams’ performance is low key and understated.

The Right Stuff isn’t Vanessa Williams’ best album, but it’s an important album in the canon of 1980s R&B/pop because it revived the career of a talented artist in a spectacular way. After establishing herself as a major pop star, Williams found even greater success as a TV comedienne, earning multiple Emmy nominations for her iconic turn as the wickedly stylish Wilhelmina Slater on Ugly Betty as well as a well-received turn on the last two seasons of the soap parody Desperate Housewives. She also found great success on Broadway and transcended and prevailed her past career controversies.

 

 

 

 

 

Brandy had to lose most of her audience to find her masterpiece with ‘Afrodisiac’

Afrodisiac

By 2004, Brandy had established a steady, solid career as a singer/actress. She amassed 9 top 20 hits, three multi-platinum albums, and a six-season stint as a lead on her own sitcom Moesha. Her work at this point was radio-friendly pop-R&B, expertly-produced, seemingly tailor-made for top 40 radio and MTV. As an artist, it didn’t look like she was being challenged.

But personal and professional changes in her life set the stage for her fourth studio effort, Afrodisiac in 2004. Jettisoning longtime producers Keith Crouch and Rodney Jerkins, she found a musical kindred spirit in Timbaland, who moved the singer away from the shiner pop of her past for something funkier and more souful.

Judging from her past albums, there was no reason to expect the brilliance of Afrodisiac. Though not the first neo-soul or alternative soul album, it is a pioneering, groundbreaking album that brought alt-soul into the mainstream. Though she didn’t write any of the lyrics, the army of expert songwriters – including Timbaland, The Clutch, Warryn Campbell, and a then-up and coming Kanye West – was able to connect with Brandy. The lyrics were moody, rueful, and pained. The songs told stories of heartache, heartbreak, and disappointment. The producers also set up a luxurious, thoughtful soundscape, with multi-layered sounds, that recalled 70s soul, alternative pop, hip-hop, rock, and symphonic orchestral music. When sampling, Afrodisiac boasts a diverse and rich list of songs including Iron Maiden’s “The Clansman,” Coldplay’s “Clocks,” Janis Ian’s “Jesse,” even finding a place for Hans Zimmer.

As a singer, Brandy doesn’t posses the most powerful voice in pop music, but it is very distinct. It’s a sexy, murmur that earns grit, gravitas, and an appealing rasp on the album. She connects with the songs on the album in a way that she hadn’t before (or has since) and the album maintains a sterling consistency through a sprawling 15 tracks. Like most mainstream pop albums, the majority of the tunes deal with love, but these aren’t sticky love ballads. The songs resonate because they tap into a kind of raw energy that Brandy rarely showed before in her music. In the song’s opener “Who I Am” the diva lays into her ex, ironically thanking him for putting her through hell because she’s emerged a stronger woman. “Who Is She 2 U” casts Brandy as a scorned woman who is railing against her partner’s gaslighting. “I Tried” works the guitar work of Iron Maiden’s “The Clansman” as the song’s lyrics reproach a cheating spouse. And the grand, epic “Finally” has Brandy empowering herself by realizing that she’s ultimately responsible for her her own happiness – the over-the-top production being topped off by Hans Zimmer’s heroic orchestral music.

The album’s best moment is the closer, “Should I Go.” Working on top of Coldplay’s “Clocks” iconic tic-tocing piano riff, Brandy sings with a moody resignation about the pop music industry, in particular, her place in the industry. As a former teen-pop star, Brandy had to grow up in the public eye, mature as an artist and a celebrity. It’s a heartbreaking song in which the singer is trying to figure out how and where she fits in; By 2004, Brandy was a vet, but also saw that her position being usurped by younger pop stars. It’s the high point of the record and really the point of Afrodisiac. It’s an artist who is wrestling with her work. Part of the song’s lyrics highlight the unique position Brandy is in – not a struggling, hungry artist, but someone who can take risks with her music.

And that’s what Afrodisiac is – a record that took risks. Brandy had a winning formula but the record played with that formula – in fact, it blew it apart. For her efforts, Brandy was rewarded with some of the best reviews of her career. Somewhat expectedly, Afrodisiac didn’t sell as well as her other efforts, and her singles failed to make it to the top 20. Part of that could be explained because the other albums were state-of-the-art pop records that leaned on pop radio trends. Afrodisiac ignored urban pop trends and instead reveled in its eccentricities. Though Brandy lost a sizable chunk of her audience after its release, Afrodisiac proved to be a magnum opus, one that predicted a slew of urban-pop records for years to come.

 

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