Read this pretty neat essay on Slate last week, about the problems music reviewers have with pop music. The centerpiece is the reaction some critics had to Justin Timberlake’s solo album. I’ve never heard any of his songs, so I have no idea how valid the writer’s descriptions of the tunes are.
(I don’t cite that fact to establish that I’m hipper than people who listen to Justin Timberlake. I just don’t listen to music radio much during my morning commute, preferring to listen to Howard Stern, my iPod, or ESPN radio, where guys just ramble about sports, but don’t do it as pompously as the hosts on WFAN.)
A couple of years ago, my assistant asked me to download a song from Gerri Halliwell’s solo album for her. I did so that evening and, at work the next day, I e-mailed it over with the message, “Your musical taste now officially sucks.”
She took this badly, and sent an angry e-mail about my own bad pop music listening habits, from 15-20 years earlier. I wrote back, “At no point am I saying my musical tastes DON’t suck. I recognize that you’re only going to dig Squeeze (as a fer instance) if you were a certain age at a certain time in musical history. I happened to be around 12-13 when I first heard Pulling Mussels (from the shell), and it struck me as one of the greatest pop song of all time.” In fact, to this day, the opening words of the song continues to elicit an instant smile from me, like seeing an old friend.
So what I’m saying is, of course our musical tastes suck. Pop music is meant to be disposable, and it’s only the best of it manages to transcend its expiration date and linger in your head or heart for years.
Now, all of that said: this new Madonna commercial for The Gap flat-out sucks (which is sorta what I meant to get at a few paragraphs earlier). Changing the words to your song to sell corduroys, and playing up the yoga-contortionist thing isn’t smart. It makes you sound like the Beach Boys when they changed the words to Good Vibrations for that Sunkist commercial.
There’s no longer an issue of “artists selling out” by doing Gap ads. It’s an acceptable way for an artist to extend his or her brand identity. It’s cool. Seeing Luscious Jackson do a Gap ad a few years ago was actually pretty neat, I have to admit. But this ad borders on unintentional self-parody.
The missteps seem to be coming a little faster and more furiously for Madonna, given that she’s now credited with two of the worst flicks of all time: Swept Away and Shanghai Surprise.
But she’ll always have one thing going for her: she’s smarter than Salman Rushdie. Yeah, Rushdie may have been a cause celebre fifteen years ago by writing The Satanic Verses, a controversial novel that no one actually read. And maybe he seemed pretty cool by going on stage with Bono, and writing that Orpheus song which he later expanded into a truly terrible novel: The Ground Beneath Her Feet.
(I mean, it’s one thing to posit an alternate reality in which JFK lives, and Bollywood culture reaches a level of parity in the west. But I don’t care HOW alternate a reality you’re building: concept album rock-n-roll concerts with sets that were borrowed from Spinal Tap will NEVER catch on. It’s a major failing of novelists who want to write about rock music: they try to bring their own literary aspirations to the rock world, which expands upon the grandiosity of the music, and that leads them to the terrible idea of the concept album/theme concert.)
So, Rushdie becomes a potential Nobel winner, while Madonna’s just a pop tart who lasted long beyond her expected career span? Well, I contend that Maddie might actually have a little more going on between the ears than Salman.
Madonna’s found ways to offend Christianity (particularly her own Catholic church), Judaism (“Uh, yeah, I study Kabbalah, too.”), and Hinduism (“Those sacred mendhi tattoos are cool!”), while extending her music career and becoming an international icon of . . . something or other. I’m not clear on what she’s actually supposed to represent, which is probably the point. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with representing the mutability of our age, and I’m perfectly fine with making Plastic Man my patron saint (Jews are allowed to have those, right?). Which is to say, identity ain’t what it used to be.
Anyway, despite all of these perceived offenses to various world religions, I contend Madonna remained at least one synapse smarter than Rushdie, because she never decided, “I’ve got it! I’ll make a fashion statement out of Islam!”
Now, that’d certainly be a tall order, but I bet she could sit down with Jean-Paul Gaultier, come up with some kind of burqa-inspired look, and carry it off pretty well. But she never seems to have decided to mess around with the one major religion known for its propensity for suicide bombers and assassins. After all, it’s one thing to goof on Christians, Jews or Hindus; it’s another to make fun of Islam.
It’s a pity Salman wasn’t smart enough to figure this out. I’m sure he had the best intentions when he was trying to undercut the tenets of Islam by exploring the heretical concept that some of the Koran was false (hence, verses written by Satan). Maybe he just thought it was a playful conceit, one that no one would take too seriously. After all, it was in a novel by an ostensibly highbrow writer, and who reads those?
So, this morning’s big thoughts: Madonna’s new ads smack of desperation, but she’s still smarter than Salman Rushdie.