"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
Last week Madonna’s new CD, “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” entered pop album charts at No. 1 in the United States, Canada and Great Britain, and in countries around the world from Europe to Mexico, Taiwan and Japan. It was also announced that, with her song “Hung Up,” Madonna had become the first performer in the rock era to match Elvis Presley’s record of 36 singles reaching the top 10.
This week, Madonna’s album suddenly dropped to No. 4 on the Billboard chart, suggesting that, at least in the U.S., word of mouth has not been as enthusiastic as expected. Nevertheless, this smash success has restored Madonna’s reputation for commercial viability after the flop three years ago of her excruciatingly unfunny film “Swept Away” (directed by her husband, Guy Ritchie), as well as the lackluster returns on her last CD, the stiff and dreary “American Life.”
With its infectious melodies and upbeat rhythms, “Confessions on a Dance Floor” is a good album — but it is not a great one. And it certainly does not equal or surpass Madonna’s early work. Normally, it is wrong and presumptuous to expect artists or performers to tarry in their first phase; we should welcome their creative evolution and stifle our own nostalgia. For example, much as we may adore Diana Rigg as the karate-chopping Mrs. Peel in that 1960s proto-feminist TV classic “The Avengers,” Rigg is quite right to be irritated by fans who fail to recognize her towering stature as a serious stage actress of major dramatic roles from Greek to modern.
But in this case, Madonna has invited and courted the comparison to her younger self by going ostentatiously retro, from the discotheque cover image of “Confessions on a Dance Floor” to the vintage violet leather jacket and slutty pink leotard she is wearing in the album’s publicity photos and debut video, with its “Saturday Night Fever” empty dance studio.
Madonna emerged from the New York dance club scene of the early 1980s as a reinterpreter of disco music, which had been declared dead after the Bee Gees juggernaut of the late ’70s but was still thriving in the gay and black worlds. Her superb 1983 song “Burning Up” (recently covered by Boston’s the Rudds) was the first step in her monumental creative renewal of disco, which would surge forward and by the late ’80s and early ’90s start to splinter and proliferate into the dozens of still-booming subforms of techno and trance music.
As a trained dancer who combined Martha Graham with jazz style, Madonna intuitively understood the deep dynamics of disco — its implacable grandeur, its liquid pulses and skittering polyrhythms, its flamboyant emotionalism. It wasn’t just the clunky thump-thump-thump of drum machines, as hard-rock acolytes contemptuously dismissed it. In a 1991 cover story on Madonna for London’s Sunday Independent Review, I described disco as “a dark, grand Dionysian music with roots in African earth-cult” — a defense that seemed bizarre because disco had yet to achieve academic legitimacy (which arrived in the ’90s as more writers embraced popular gay history).
Through her fusion of Graham primitivism with Italian Catholic ritualism, Madonna caught the pagan majesty of disco and embodied it in a stunning body of original compositions that conquered the world and have never gone out of airplay — “Into the Groove,” “Open Your Heart,” “Vogue” and a host of others. Her primary inspiration wasn’t ABBA, the prolific and beloved Swedish pop group whose 1979 hit, “Gimme Gimme Gimme,” is reworked — or should I say pirated — on “Hung Up,” the signature song on her new CD. No, her real ancestor was the Italian magician, Giorgio Moroder, celebrated for the operatic albums he produced for Donna Summer in Germany, which were a direct influence on several of Madonna’s fine early producers, like Jellybean Benitez.
Moroder does make an appearance on “Confessions on a Dance Floor” in the beat from Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” borrowed for “Future Lovers” (a track produced by Mirwais Ahmadzai), but it feels listless and undigested. Madonna’s current main producer, Stuart Price, appears to have little feeling for or understanding of Moroder, who in my view remains the benchmark by which all old and new disco music must be measured. Last summer, Madonna described her forthcoming CD as “future disco” — which raised the hopes of all die-hard disco fans that “Confessions on a Dance Floor” would be a masterpiece, a return to roots but also a visionary breakthrough.
That’s not what we got — though you’d never know it from the gushing reviews, which applauded the CD for achieving Madonna’s purported aim of making people dance. My blood boiled at this insulting reduction of dance music to gymnastics — mere recreational aerobics. I for one do not dance to dance music; disco for me is a lofty metaphysical mode that induces contemplation. (Of course, this may partly descend from my Agnes Gooch marginalization in the old bar scene, where I was — as Nora Ephron would say — a wallflower at the orgy.) Giorgio Moroder’s albums, which I listened to obsessively on headphones, were an enormous inspiration to me throughout the writing of “Sexual Personae” in the 1970s and ’80s. Disco at its best is a neurological event, a shamanistic vehicle of space-time travel.
Because they rarely get the high-profile mainstream reviews automatically snagged by the product of Madonna Inc., dance albums are sorely in need of a more sophisticated critical vocabulary, comparable to what has been lavished on hard rock for 30 years. Reviewers of “Confessions” who were casting around for something to say often resorted to simply listing the samples or cataloging the alleged technical wizardry. There was rarely any discerning reference to the massive history of disco, which this album is explicitly invoking.
When my partner, Alison Maddex (a true blue Madonna fan), bought the CD a few days after its release on Nov. 15, I was shocked at how the reviews had failed to note its tinny shrillness, sonic clichis, and intermittently clumsy or muddy layering — a startling lapse in Madonna’s usually impeccable quality control. Even worse, the stitching together of one track into the next — a basic disco convention that some reviews carelessly allowed readers to think was Madonna’s innovation — is in every case but one embarrassingly weak, wavering and amateurish. For decades, hundreds of ace DJs all over the world, in clubs or on street corners, have been doing masterly hypnotic variations of disco’s seamless segue.
Perhaps the gap between P.R. and reality in the reviews can be traced to Madonna’s ban on advance promotional CDs. Some journalists from newspapers and magazines that planned for reviews to appear, as is customary, at the release date were forced to make pilgrimages to designated offices for “listening sessions” (sounds like something out of a Hillary campaign), where they heard the album under controlled and presumably optimal conditions. This authoritarian strategy (which I rejected outright when Salon told me about it) was perhaps designed to stop dissemination of the CD on the Web — one of Madonna’s crusades — thus ensuring that high first-week sales would top the charts. But the end result is that the lowly hoi polloi of the buying public (including me) were snookered by a bait-and-switch.
Nevertheless, the positive response to “Confessions” probably signals a thirst on the part of the pop audience for emotional directness and shaped melody, which have languished in the hip-hop era, with its aggressive, incantatory rhyming and grinding percussive effects. Even Madonna’s archrival, Mariah Carey, with her virtuoso lyricism, is given to long, meandering vocal lines that assert passionate feeling (stressed in performance by pentecostal hand-waving and arm swoops) but in fact go nowhere. It’s a crooning, swooning, melting style that makes too many of Mariah’s songs sound the same.
Incidentally, the claim repeatedly made by CNN and the British press that Madonna is now “the undisputed queen of pop” was undercut by CNN.com’s current poll, “Who is today’s real ‘Queen of Pop’?” After 93,000 worldwide votes (as of this writing), Mariah is kicking Madonna’s hot pants at 57 percent to 34 percent. Far behind trail Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue and Beyonci Knowles — all of whose careers were in varying degrees influenced by Madonna. The poll results will surely surprise most observers because Madonna, unlike Mariah, has such a hammerlock on MTV and international magazine journalism.
What is disappointing in “Confessions on a Dance Floor” is that its songs don’t feel fully developed. It’s like a first draft: Madonna is generating many interesting melodic ideas that stay in the mind, as on “Get Together” or “Forbidden Love,” but they haven’t really been thought through or lived with, and they are often suffocated or undermined by Price’s tacky, penny-arcade embellishments. Price plainly lacks the elegant musicianship of a true techno artist like Paul van Dyk. Disco is visceral — a quality missing here. In my opinion, there are only two truly strong songs, “Hung Up” and “Jump” — especially the latter, with its magnificent, hymnlike ascensions.
Madonna’s lyrics on the CD range from the merely adequate to the cringe-making. Reviews have universally jeered at her juvenile rhyming of “New York” with “dork,” but equally absurd (also in “I Love New York”) is her lame cut at George Bush — “Just go to Texas — isn’t that where they golf?” Evidently, her husband’s wearing of a kilt with his family tartan at their wedding (which Madonna then popularized as a fashion statement) has never tweaked her curiosity about his cultural heritage: Scotland, of course, is the proud birthplace of golf.
The use of Mideastern tonalities on “Isaac” (which features a Yemeni singer from the London Kabbalah Centre) is ambitious, but the refrain becomes monotonous. The Israeli singer Ofra Haza was more effective with these atmospherics in the haunting “Love Song” and “Galbi” on her 1988 disco album, “Shaday.” In interviews, Madonna has imprudently boasted of how little time her collaborative songwriting with Price took. “Confessions” may have been hurried out to meet an artificial deadline — perhaps to beat Britney Spears’ post-childbirth remix CD, which was released last week.
Is Madonna suffering Mick Jagger syndrome? Jagger, like Madonna, has tremendous managerial and business aptitude. It is he who single-handedly saved the Rolling Stones during Keith Richards’ reclusive period of heroin addiction in the 1970s. But the end result was that the once-Dionysian Jagger became trapped in the crisp, precise Apollonian realm and was no longer capable of producing lyrics that match Richards’ thunderous, blues-based inventions. (Full disclosure: Keith Richards has been my idol and role model for over 40 years.) As a lyricist, Jagger has fallen very far indeed from his glorious zenith in “Sympathy for the Devil”– the greatest of all rock songs and demonstrably superior to Bob Dylan’s exhilarating but over-cynical “Like a Rolling Stone” (which came in first this year in Rolling Stone’s industry-wide poll of the Top 500 Songs).
But it seems querulous to blame Madonna for anything, because she has given so much to the world. She is a model of prodigious productivity without any affectations of avant-garde self-destructiveness or anomie. Her dance moves and ensemble work have been absorbed by performers in film and TV all over the world, from Latin America to India and Japan. She revolutionized feminism by giving enormous momentum to the pro-sex wing that had been ostracized throughout the p.c. era of those puritan censors, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. When I wrote in my polemical 1990 New York Times op-ed that “Madonna is the future of feminism,” there were squawks of disbelief on all sides — but that is exactly what came to pass over the next decade.
Madonna is her own Hollywood studio — a popelike mogul and divine superstar in one. She has a laserlike instinct for publicity, aided by her visual genius for still photography (which none of her legion of imitators has). Unfortunately, her public life has dissolved into a series of staged photo ops. She has become a fashion icon more than a music pioneer. She lives in a peripatetic court of paid retainers — flacks, flunkies, cooks, nannies and adoring handmaidens (no wonder she compares herself to Cleopatra in “Like It or Not”). She acquires properties and objects to flaunt in glossy magazines but somehow expects us to accept her as a spiritual wayfarer in Kabbalah, that chic brand of gnostic mysticism that she keeps doggedly and foolishly describing as “older than religion” (sigh — doesn’t she ever read books?).
A self-described “work Nazi,” Madonna is overscheduled and overprogrammed. Remarkably for a Graham dancer, she has become poor at improvisation — which produces her manic, mechanical stage shows, where little room is left for natural warmth or banter with the audience and where the production is always too small and precious for large arenas. There is a painfully tight calculation to Madonna’s self-presentation that has certainly blighted this CD, with its preachy, sepulchral voiceovers. “I hate to waste time,” Madonna says. But artists recharge themselves and their imaginations precisely when they are doing nothing.
“How much fortune can you make?” Madonna rhetorically asks in “How High.” Exactly: When will she decide she has made enough money for 10 lifetimes and recommit herself to the noble cause of making music? Music never dies. Do we really need another Madonna tour? Does she have to compete with women performers 25 years her junior? Why turn every private moment, including motherhood, into commerce and publicity? (This was then-boyfriend Warren Beatty’s complaint about her in “Truth or Dare.”) And why does every artistic venture have to be crushed by streamrolling promotional gimmickry (like the depressingly literalist linkage of “Hung Up” to a cellphone company)?
At a recent party in New York celebrating Salon’s 10th anniversary, the formidable Cintra Wilson said mordantly to me (I scribbled all this down on a cocktail napkin at the bar), “Madonna is the Robo-Celebrity, calcified with discipline — religiously saintly, physically superhuman, in all ways faultless. She represents the unspoken desires of America — to be good at everything!”
Even allowing for the fact that she must strenuously maintain her hipness for a busy husband 10 years her junior, Madonna is starting to morph into the mature Joan Crawford of “Torch Song,” still ferociously dancing but with her fascist willpower signaled by brute, staring eyes and fixed jawline. In cannibalizing her disco diva days, Madonna runs the risk of turning into a pasty powdered crumpet like the aging Bette Davis in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” Will she become a whooping Charo shaking her geriatric hoochie-coochie hips on TV talk shows? Or should we expect a sudden, grisly collapse from glowing beauty to dust, like Ursula Andress as the 2000-year-old femme fatale in “She”? Too hungry to connect to the youth market, Madonna goes on childishly using naughty words and flipping the finger (as onstage at Live 8 last summer). Marlene Dietrich, her supreme precursor, knew how to preserve her dignity and glamour.
We live in a period of declining stars. Few celebrities these days (aside from the smoldering Angelina Jolie) seem to have complex psychic lives. Hence we should probably be grateful for the Ritchies, our new Burtons with their baronial pretensions and nouveau riche excesses. (I have already tartly commented in the U.K. on Madonna’s equine misadventure.)
But I still long for songs of artistic weight — which the abundantly gifted Madonna is quite capable of. As a lyricist, she is becoming too blatant, as in the too pushy “Push,” with its awkward marital revelations. She is confusing her banal, real-life personality with her higher, artistic self. She needs more generalizing obliqueness. A spectacular 1983 rock song, “Middle of the Road” by the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde (another American expatriate and mother), shows how to combine rueful autobiography with searing social commentary.
And Madonna’s complaints about “success” and “fame” on “Confessions” (“Was it all worth it?”) are simply tiresome. She sings in “How High” (with typically slack locutions), “It’s funny — I spent my whole life wanting to be talked about. I did it — just about everything to see my name in lights.” Here she capitulates to her most uninformed critics and slanders her own creative drive — which is one of the wonders of modern show business. The music videos she produced from the mid-’80s to the early ’90s were true objets d’art — in my judgment superior to anything coming from the fine arts in the same period. But we have yet to see signs that Madonna’s powers are ripening toward, let us say, Judy Garland’s supreme expressiveness and acute responsiveness to a live audience in her marathon 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall.
Now that she has taken up residence in England, Madonna should beware of the unhappy precedent of Diana, who also became addicted to the flash of paparazzi cameras. As a major contemporary composer, Madonna should not let the eye dictate to the ear. She has treated the dance idiom cavalierly on “Confessions.” Few of its songs are as distinctive or poetic as any number of dance hits of recent years — Amber’s “Sexual,” Deborah Cox’s “Mr. Lonely,” Sunshine Anderson’s “Easy” (Groove Armada), Aubrey’s “Stand Still,” Billy Ray Martin’s “Systems of Silence” (the remix), Motorcycle’s “As the Rush Comes,” Ciara and Ludacris’ “Oh,” or even Annie’s “Heartbeat” (by a Norwegian woman DJ).
And when we replay the truly great classics of the high disco era, “Confessions on a Dance Floor” fades fast. Try Jackie Moore’s “This Time, Baby,” Sylvester’s “Stars,” Donna Summer’s “Queen for a Day,” E.G. Daily’s “Love in the Shadows,” Stephanie Mills’ “Pilot Error,” or Chaka Khan’s phenomenal “Ain’t Nobody” — which I would argue is an art song that bears comparison to Schubert’s famous “Serenade.” Specially for Salon readers, I have gone through my vinyl collection to create a master list of my personal all-time favorite disco songs, leading up to the rise of Madonna. This is Madonna’s artistic genealogy — a vibrant tradition that deserves more attention and respect.
Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.More Camille Paglia.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)