Accent the negative

Obama's folksy come-on is as bad as Madonna's faux British -- and both are in desperate need of fresh inspiration. Plus: The elemental power of Daniela Mercury

Published August 13, 2008 2:50PM (EDT)

When in tarnation will those blasted presidential debates arrive? This excruciatingly long hiatus between the end of the primary season and the national conventions feels like running in mud. The electorate desperately needs to see and compare the two major candidates operating together in an issues-oriented forum. Both Barack Obama and John McCain are being diminished by their helter-skelter jumping around like grasshoppers. And campaign ads on both sides have seemed rote, slick or silly.

As a supporter of Barack Obama, I've been alarmed by the steady tightening of the polls. And as a longtime listener of talk radio who witnessed the ruthless whittling down of John Kerry in the 2004 campaign, I have an increasing sense of foreboding. Obama is twisting slowly, slowly in the wind like a tempting piñata for right-wing cudgels. Given how new he is as a national figure (despite his bestselling books), this protracted summer delay is allowing opponents to fill the gap with a grotesquely distorted caricature of him. A tap-dancing Rockette line of mutually contradictory Obamas has been trotted out to scare the public -- the secret Muslim traitor; the radical leftist with a bag of bombs; the snobby, out-of-touch elitist; the magical Messiah with healing hands; the Peter Pan naif who can't sharpen a pencil. But here's the bad news -- it's working. Who would ever vote for the menacing or ridiculous shadow Obama of talk radio?

I've also been troubled by how the Obama campaign, after a nearly flawless primary performance, has been playing its cards. It was too easy for conservative critics to dismiss Obama's international junket as a series of exploitative photo ops because he did indeed spend so little time in each place. A genuine fact-finding mission would have looked more substantive and considered. However, I was certainly delighted with the dazzling crop of pix -- Obama holding his own with class and grace among foreign leaders. True, that sketch of his potential presidency felt a bit coercively premature -- but what an improvement from the embarrassments of the last eight years, as the provincial George Bush clownishly strutted his cowboy way across the European stage.

A major gaffe this summer has been that, in trying to act more casual and folksy to appeal to working-class white voters, Obama has resorted to a cringe-making use of inner-city black intonations and jokey phrasings -- exactly the wrong tactic.

(Example below:)

One of the major doubts those very voters have about him is to what extent he is an agent for the 1960s black power radicalism espoused by his former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It does seem to be the case that Obama, raised in multicultural and tourist-oriented Hawaii, lacks direct experience of any working-class enclave aside from the black one. But so what? In remaking her campaign at the end, Hillary Clinton mimicked the metallic accent of her father's coal-country Scranton origins. Yet nothing in her inexorable climb toward multimillionaire status has ever indicated that Hillary prefers jawing with the humble proles to her favorite company of glitzy celebs, fast-track power players, and slippery, brainiac lawyers.

Furthermore, the Obama campaign's constant chaining of the Bush anchor on the grouchy, maverick McCain is getting stale. Save that for the post-convention push. The attitude toward Bush of most working-class conservatives is, "He may be a bastard, but he's OUR bastard!" If that nativizing idea gets transferred to McCain, it could be fatal for the Dems in November. And Obama's tire gauge mini-crusade was a mortifying misfire with those same voters -- a shiny little gadget specializing in the literally lightweight issue of air versus the greasy, brawny push for massive, phallic drilling into the seabed of mother earth. Symbols matter!

Meanwhile, the legions of journalists who thought the defeated Hillary was going to skulk away brightly smiling like Pollyanna should have their press credentials revoked. It was obvious for months, even before the primaries were over, that she has no intention of leaving the field, now or ever. Those 18 million votes she's claiming (really 17) contain significant numbers of Republicans who voted satirically for her during Rush Limbaugh's Operation Chaos, designed to prolong the Democratic primary and damage the candidates. Furthermore, only a fraction of the legitimately Democratic votes that she won belonged to Hillary die-hards anyhow. Many voters preferred other candidates who had dropped out, or they were temporarily unsure about Obama. It's utter nonsense for Hillary to imply that the alleged 18 million form a solid, lardlike block sworn to her, as in some fascist regime, and that if they aren't "heard" at the convention, they will swarm like lemmings to the edge of a cliff and fling themselves off.

The Clintons and their surrogates have clearly been encouraging and fomenting resentment and rebellion, even while angelically maintaining deniability. Conventions aren't the place for "catharsis" -- how absurd. Let all those dizzy dames go off on a spa week for a bout of Arthur Janov's primal scream therapy. (Remember that? John Lennon bawling for mom on the "Plastic Ono Band" album.) Hillary is setting feminism back -- defining women as petulant brats driven by emotion rather than logic and fair play. This entire election wasn't about gender and sexism -- until the profligate, mismanaging Hillary began losing and grasping at straws. For Minerva's sake, let's move on to a fresh new generation of female leadership!

As a Democrat who was supporting him until Obama showed his mettle during the primary debates, I was shocked by how badly John Edwards has behaved during the lurid flap over his private life. I'm not surprised and really don't care that Edwards had an extramarital affair, but what a craven, sniveling little worm he has turned out to be -- fleeing into hotel bathrooms, pretending to know nothing about payoffs under his nose, offering a paternity test while the mother bizarrely refuses it, and canonizing his long-suffering wife while doing her dirt. Elizabeth Edwards too has been ethically compromised because of her aggressively sanctimonious defense of her husband's reputation over the past year. Both of them well deserve their exile from the Democratic convention.

On the pop front, Madonna's life has been passing before our eyes like a decadent German expressionist film. There's been a tabloid avalanche: rumors about Madonna's rocky marriage; a flirtation with a juvenile if humpy New York Yankee; an accusation of alienation of affections from the baseball player's furious wife; the release of a tart memoir by her brother, Christopher Ciccone; horrifying paparazzi pix of Madonna's wan face looking as resculpted as a plastic doll. With a New York magazine cover story on the new plastic surgery, Madonna has become the poster girl of android metamorphosis. This has hardly been a dignified run-up to her 50th birthday -- the big party for which has just been postponed because of the latest in a series of mysterious injuries leading to the launch this month of her world tour.

Ciccone's retrospective doesn't contain many bombshells. Who could be surprised that Madonna is a tough, egotistical and sometimes rude personality, given the vast scope of her professional empire? I can't get too exercised over Ciccone getting a smaller room than Gwyneth Paltrow's at the Scottish castle where Madonna staged her wedding to Guy Ritchie. Stiffing her brother on out-of-pocket interior-decorating bills, on the other hand, was pretty lowdown and tacky.

I was pleased to see that Ciccone confirmed, from an insider's perspective, my dim view of Madonna's symbiotic link with Ingrid Casares, which turns out to be even creepier than I thought. Ciccone quotes a barb of mine about Ingrid (from New York magazine in 1998): "She's turned herself into Madonna's flunky and yes-girl, and I think Madonna's dependence on Ingrid Casares is a self-stunting sickness. Madonna should go to the Betty Ford Clinic to break her addiction and detox from Ingrid Casares." Ciccone's unsettling tales do indeed chronicle Ingrid's masochistic sycophancy. I have always maintained that the pivotal downturn in Madonna's creative life came after she abandoned the ultra-hip and unsparingly blunt Sandra Bernhard, with her acute power of social observation, for Ingrid Casares, a spoiled Cuban heiress and wifty nightclub denizen. (I didn't even know at the time that Bernhard and Casares had been an item, split by Madonna. Quel tangled web!)

Listening to Madonna's latest CD, "Hard Candy," was a melancholy experience. There are several interesting songs on it, but musically, it retraces old steps, and the overall effect is uptight and claustrophobic. Even as a wife and mother, Madonna can't seem to escape an adolescent angst and self-absorption. Yet the CD's brassy cover image, with that ostentatiously exposed crotch and hard-bitten face lolling its tongue like a dissolute old streetwalker, is still hammering at sex as if it's Madonna's last, desperate selling point. Sex for sternly workaholic Madonna has become a brittle concept rather than a sensual reality, a monotonous compulsiveness diverting her from artistic self-development.

Though her reputation has receded in the U.S., Madonna retains a huge fan base around the world. By shrewdly monitoring trends, she has been able to maintain her relevance and sell out concerts at stratospheric ticket prices. Young women performers everywhere have been massively influenced by her persona and stagecraft, even if they don't know it because they've borrowed from intermediaries closer to their age. Madonna's great songs have become canonical on radio airplay. But she is no longer a game-changer; she's lost her once unerring sense of the cutting edge. In a performer this talented and ambitious, it's a tragic decline.

What happened to Madonna? I have had a series of revelations about this since my trip to Brazil in May, which I wrote about in my June column. I described the moment when, after my art lecture at the Teatro Castro Alves in Salvador da Bahia, five DVDs arrived wrapped in red ribbon from Daniela Mercury, the charismatic superstar who has been called "Brazil's Madonna." It was literally electrifying: I felt as if I had been hit by lightning, causing some mysterious rearrangement of brain cells. My boredom and disillusion with popular culture, which have been intensifying over the past 15 years, seemed to vanish. Since then, I have been enthusiastically exploring Brazilian history and Mercury's career through the wonders of the Web -- that revolutionary instrument of cultural exchange.

The artistic career (in literature, the visual arts and performance) has been one of my major subjects of scholarly inquiry since college and graduate school. It is a main theme of my first book, "Sexual Personae," which examines the sometimes punishing dynamics of artistic creation. Why do some artists flare fast and burn out, while others grow, mature, change style and continue to innovate over time? How do women performers in particular deal with aging? Catherine Deneuve, for example, like Marlene Dietrich before her, has gained in majesty by acting her age and not trying to imitate ditzy 20-year-olds.

Thinking about Daniela Mercury, I suddenly realized that Madonna is a displaced person, a refugee. She has lost her roots -- Motown, the city of Detroit (called the Motor City because of its auto industry), outside of which she grew up. Detroit had been a major capital of black music in her youth, but its vitality ebbed, partly because of the economic recession that devastated so many Midwestern industrial cities. Madonna would be instrumental in giving artistic legitimacy to disco music, once an underground style of black and gay clubs. As a dancer, she zeroed in on the propulsive, percussive African rhythms at disco's heart.

Second, the immigrant Italian-American culture from which Madonna emerged also disintegrated over time. I too am a product of it, and I am heartsick that, because of social assimilation, very little is left (except for the vulgar libels of "The Sopranos"). Madonna's combat against the repressions of Italian Catholicism (with its Madonna-whore complex) produced her earliest and finest work. But Italian Catholicism always had a strong pagan residue in its cult of the saints as well as in its vaguely erotic sadomasochistic imagery. Italian Catholicism was syncretistic, ceremonial and image-heavy -- an ideal inspiration for a performer. Third, in leaving home to seek fame and fortune in New York City, Madonna separated from her large family -- which she is currently trying to re-create through dismayingly high-profile serial adoption.

Over time, flying back and forth from Los Angeles to New York and then moving to London, Madonna has become a floating entity. She tried to replace what she regarded as the moralistic Puritanism of Italian Catholicism with Kabbalah -- but that introspective branch of mystical Judaism is not an ideal match for a pagan dancer of Madonna's caliber. Kabbalah, which she has fatiguingly turned into preachy moralism, has been disastrous for Madonna's creative life.

Despite her interest in Latin men, there has been little influence of Latin music on Madonna's work (except for the exquisite "La Isla Bonita"). Then when she married Ritchie, Madonna became fixated on British high society, where emotional expressiveness is programmatically discouraged. She began to ape a British accent (an affectation always scorned in the U.K.) and aspired for a while to the country gentry, shooting, riding and the rest of it, until she fell off a horse three years ago and, despite announced plans for building a lavish equestrian center for herself, seems to have wisely shelved the whole thing. Madonna did recharge her career in the late 1990s by collaborations with a series of male specialists in electronic music, but was electronica (a studio artifact) really the way to go for a dancer and celebrator of the glories of the flesh?

Daniela Mercury, in contrast, has never left her roots. Though she travels the world and is often seen in Rio de Janeiro, she still resides in her native city of Salvador, where her family lives, including her two children in their early 20s (Gabriel Póvoas, a musician, and Giovana Póvoas, a dancer) as well as her sister, the singer Vania Abreu. Daniela's main inspiration is the city of Salvador itself, which unlike Detroit is still thriving as a center of black culture. Bahia is the most Africanized region in Brazil. Up to 80 percent of its inhabitants have been estimated to have some African lineage.

Whereas Madonna has to make extreme gestures of compassion toward Malawi (as in her latest film), located on a continent to which she has no personal ties, Daniela Mercury has been immersed in black culture since childhood. She began studying African dance, along with ballet, when she was 8. She used to be called "the whitest black girl in Bahia." In a country of sensitive racial issues and severe economic inequities, Daniela both onstage and off has strongly denounced "racism in all its forms," and her songs often celebrate the beauty of black skin.

Religious syncretism is very elaborate in Salvador, the port to which millions of Africans were brought on slave ships to work under brutal conditions in the sugar plantations and gold mines. Salvador, founded by the Portuguese in 1549, was Brazil's first capital. Most of what we think of as essentially Brazilian, including samba (an African dance), came originally from Bahia, where there were also native Indians who added to the racial mix. When the Portuguese banned the African cults, the slaves simply identified the Catholic saints with their own gods, producing a gorgeous fusion that continues today. The Yoruba cults have survived in modern Candomblé, which is also practiced by many white Brazilians. The drumming rituals of Candomblé fill the back streets of Salvador, a sonic atmosphere that is the city's characteristic voice.

Salvador from the start was a highly religious city: There are 365 churches in the historic center, some of them built by slaves with their own labor and money. The architecture and ornamentation of those churches are often stylistically syncretistic -- a startlingly eclectic mix of baroque, classical and romantic motifs. Daniela Mercury dramatized Bahia's religious syncretism in her early video "Santa Helena," where she is seen praying in a Catholic church in the ancient Pelhourinho district and also performing Candomblé rituals -- offering candle-lit food to the gods and asking for prophecies from a priestess, who is casting bones like dice.

Salvador's massive carnival, which precedes Lent, is also religious in origin. Rio de Janeiro's world-famous carnival has become formalized and regulated theater: Performers in elaborate costumes are watched by spectators in a vast arena. But the carnival in Salvador is a street phenomenon, taking over and transforming the entire city. Giant sound trucks (trio elétricos), thronged by thousands of joyfully jumping people, slowly move down the street. Performing perilously atop the trucks' superstructures, three stories high, are professional singers and dancers like Daniela, who often hilariously shout to the balconies and grandstands crammed with spectators along the way. The trucks look like cruise ships moving through a sea of people: A million or more fill the long avenues as far as the eye can see.

The Salvador carnival is a religious procession gone amazingly high-tech. It may take seven hours (with the performers in indefatigable overdrive) to negotiate the full route through the city. In 1996, Daniela, whose carnival group is called Crocodilo, initiated a new route by the shore (Salvador is dramatically ringed by 30 miles of beaches) -- thus producing spectacular footage on her DVDs of her singing in full costume high among the moonlit palm trees with the crashing waves below. "How beautiful the beach is!" she says to the crowd on one of those balmy evenings.

Daniela's childhood experience of carnival in Salvador remains the basis of her aesthetic. Her energy and power come from improvisational, open-air performance and from the sympathetic identification of all Bahian singers and dancers with the multiracial community. Inspired by the Brazilian star Elis Regina, Daniela began singing in Salvador nightclubs when she was 16, but her primary sensibility is as a dancer. The staggering variety and complexity of African and Brazilian rhythms continue to motivate her work, which takes a hundred different forms in all of the genres of pop and jazz. In contrast, Madonna, after her early video innovations as a dancer trained in Martha Graham, has not moved beyond the snappy Bob Fosse "Cabaret" style that she adopted for her early 1990s stage shows.

Madonna and Daniela have followed reverse tracks over the past 15 years. Madonna's artistic slide began in 1992 -- a year after Daniela became a national figure in Brazil. But Daniela has stunningly grown in personal authority and artistic mastery in the intervening period. She began as a fresh, girlish, almost fawnlike presence. But she has turned into a tigress! Here is a representative selection of Daniela's work, tracing her creative evolution:

1) "Swing da Cor," one of Daniela Mercury's signature songs (about the breakup of a love affair). Performed at a landmark 1992 concert at Rio de Janeiro's gargantuan Apoteose stadium (in the Sambadrome, the "temple of samba"). Note the staggering size of the crowd and the general delirium. Daniela had become a symbol of a new generation after the end of the military dictatorship in Brazil seven years before. Daniela's simple "Não" ("No," pronounced in the nasalized Portuguese way), with its burst of samba snare drums, may be one of the most instantly identifiable motifs in modern Brazilian music.

2) "O Canto da Cidade" ("The Song of the City"), another of Daniela's signature songs, which she co-wrote and is performing at the same 1992 concert in Rio. Since then, it has become an anthem for many cities in Brazil.

3) "Beija Flor" with Timbalada in 1993. Daniela seems to be the only white person onstage with this troupe of amazing African-style drummers and performers in body paint. The audience is going wild. This was at the start of the axé movement of samba-reggae, with which Daniela was associated. It marked a radical break from the earlier, softer, more laid-back style of samba-jazz that most Americans know through bossa nova. Daniela would cause initial controversy through her pioneering use of electronic instruments for Brazilian popular music.

4) "O Reggae e o Mar" ("Reggae and the Sea"). In this sunny 1994 video, you can really hear the reggae in Daniela's axé music. It seems to be shot in New York City -- the World Trade Center towers repeatedly appear. Daniela is whirling (through Central Park?) like a sprite.

5) "Feijão da Corda," a beautiful song as Daniela dashes around doing her carefree sprite dance with some nice modern-dance moves. This is evidently a video for her pathbreaking 1997 album, "Feijão con Arroz," which has been called a "masterpiece."

6) A 1994 duet with Roberto Carlos. Note how open yet how shyly endearing and girlish Daniela is at this period. She always shows super-attentiveness and profound respect to other artists.

7) An early video with Gilberto Gil, a genius of Bahian music. Gil had been imprisoned, along with musician Caetano Veloso, by the military regime but would much later become a government minister in Salvador. In her early career in the late 1980s, Daniela was a backup vocalist for Gil. Note how girlish she still is, although the black pants and high-heeled boots under the flounced red dress suggest an increasing command in persona. I assume this song, with its merry dancing on the sand, is about the relaxed and unmaterialistic Bahian lifestyle.

8) "Emballa" with Cirque du Soleil in a huge, open-air concert. Daniela is dancing as free as Shakespeare's Ariel. What a crescendo of fantastic, complex Brazilian rhythms! The kickboxing performers are actually doing capoeira, a version of the martial arts brought by African slaves to Bahia and still practiced in the streets of Salvador. Here Daniela is using her most graceful balletic skills. The end, when she cuts through the troupe to break free into the open ring, is absolutely exhilarating. There are too many camera cutaways from her best moves: If classic Hollywood had been filming Daniela's performance on that night, it would have approached the most unforgettable work of Rita Hayworth and Cyd Charisse.

9) "Aeromoça" from Daniela's "Classica" album, taped in a nightclub, like the clubs where she started her singing career in the 1980s. This gorgeous, haunting song (close to Portuguese fado) was co-written by Daniela and her son, Gabriel Póvoas, who recently released a bossa nova album. (Unfortunately, sound and image on this video infuriatingly diverge at 1:30.) The song uses the metaphor of an airline stewardess to say that the singer must "fly" and cannot be contained by one romantic relationship. I love the Near Eastern melisma toward the end. Daniela looks ravishing in a glossy olive-gray top, like a wetsuit. She is a bit shy, containing her energy and visibly struggling not to dance! But she still does some wonderful moves, including the final flamenco motif.

10) "Os Colombos." Daniela is pensive and casual in a studio with simply a guitarist and pianist. Another haunting, moody song. Daniela does some fabulous, ultra-sensuous vamping with her arms around 2:32, accompanied by an eerie Yma Sumac-like vocal riff. At the end, she emerges like a sleepwalker from artistic space and reverts to her real self with a dazzling, friendly smile.

11) "Olha o Gandhi Ai," another of Daniela's signature songs, as performed by her in the Coliseu in Lisbon. However, the real knockout is the original recording, which this video of a rehearsal by Campanhia Axé in Salvador captures perfectly. Listen to that amazing rhythm and the raw, psychedelic electric guitar! My head nearly exploded when I first heard this. I deeply admire the way Daniela lets her voice fall off in the refrain three-quarters of the way through. She has the uncanny ability to create sudden intimacy amid power, as she drops into her low, husky chest tones. How the heck does she do that amid the general Dionysian uproar of hurtling drums and guitars? (Donna Summer got loud and stayed loud as she surfed on the Giorgio Moroder tsunami.) This song is a salute to a society (afoxé) of men in Salvador, the Filhos de Gandhy (Sons of Gandhi), who dress in white turbans and robes to celebrate the peace values of Mahatma Gandhi. The song says that their procession in the streets is a "white carpet" that everyone in the city rushes to see.

12) "O Mais Belo Dos Belos," an amazing piece of theater from Daniela's marathon 2003 special for MTV, "Eletrodoméstico," which I think every aspiring young performer should buy and study. Out of a green grove of sugar cane comes a series of beautifully adorned and radiant African women dancers, symbolizing the birth of modern Brazilian music from the atrocious centuries of slavery. Stalking like a cat, Daniela herself emerges in black with a ritual headdress of silver ornaments falling over her eyes, the costume of a priestess of Candomblé. This confident sorceress with her animal magnetism is a world away from the shy girl singer of the early 1990s.

13) Daniela performing the compelling title song of "Eletrodoméstico" at a jazz festival in Montreal in 2004. The camera doesn't always catch her beautiful, swaying, modern-dance movement with full arm extended (like italics) that is the signature of this song and that can be better seen in the "Eletrodoméstico" DVD, where it starts the show. This video is a remarkable demonstration of the power of art: a traveling troupe of Brazilian musicians re-creating the cultural fire of their nation in a dim, wintry, cavelike space in Canada. Note Daniela's use of hoarse low tones and her militant, almost boyish body language as she merges with the song's rapping street persona. How charming it is, as always, when she resumes her cordial real self at the end. And not least, she is wearing one of her most sensational, cutaway black leather outfits.

14) "Umbigo do Mondo" performed by Daniela with the famous Bahian drumming group, Olodum, from the MTV production of "Eletrodoméstico." Intoxicating percussion. And Daniela is rapping brilliantly. I may not understand Portuguese, but it's still riveting -- pure poetry! (Listening to Daniela this summer has actually inspired me to buy Brazilian Portuguese language instruction CDs and grammar books.)

15) "No Balanço do Mar." A beautiful, lilting Brazilian rhythm, as Daniela shepherds a flock of sexy girls in careening metal hoop skirts, which they are ebulliently rapping with drumsticks. The amusing costumes (like something out of avant-garde dadaist Paris) are a fantasia created by Daniela, inspired by metal street drums.

16) "Ile de Luz" at a 2005 concert at Farol de Barra, Salvador's historic lighthouse. This isn't popular entertainment; it's an art song, as serious as anything in Schubert. Daniela is singing almost a cappella, with just a tambourine accompaniment. She is very moved, and the audience is strangely still and awed. She is almost chanting, like a priestess or an ancient Greek or beat poet. Her fierce intelligence and moral commitment are plainly visible as she sternly uses traditional African "call and response" with the young crowd. She is singing about racism and the triumph of love over prejudice; she puts special emphasis on the lines about the beauty of black skin. Her upraised hand at the end (on the word "luz," light) points to the sun in the hope of enlightenment and social redemption.

17) For a taste of street life in Salvador, check this out. Here are two buff and handsome black men putting on a stunning athletic display of axé dancing in a Bahia park. Note the characteristically wide stance of the legs and feet, an African motif that I've only seen before in limbo. When a woman (such as Daniela) does this onstage, it gives great strength of assertion to the torso and hips.

18) Here are two vivacious young black women competing in an axé contest on the Salvador beach. What mind-boggling pelvic fluidity! Behold the birth of samba and all the booty-shaking in American rhythm and blues over the past 60 years!

19) How about this for roadside entertainment? It's a spectacular pickup drum choir on the streets of Salvador -- mother Africa speaking from nearly five centuries ago. Catch a peculiarity of tropical Bahia, which took me by surprise when I was there: The sun is shining brightly at the start of this short video, and then it suddenly sets. Pouf! There's no twilight. The cars in the distance turn their headlights on, and that's it.

20) A tasty gossip morsel: The young singing star Nelly Furtado, curtly dismissing the idea that she has ever wanted to imitate Madonna. No, she says, it's Gloria Estefan and, even more, Daniela Mercury who are her role models as international stars.

21) The 2007 carnival in Salvador. A video clip of Daniela (in an outlandish Spanish outfit with a white veil) singing and shouting from the top of her trio elétrico. Long shots of the avenue show her Crocodilo truck surrounded by the massive crowd.

22) This clip of the same 2007 Salvador carnival, taken with a cellphone by a fan in a balcony, really provides an exciting, you-are-there feeling. (The French poster to YouTube says, "Voici la sublime Daniela Mercury.") Daniela's Crocodilo truck can be seen grandly approaching and passing (with another truck behind) as we hear her sing one of her many hit songs, "Maimbe Danda" ("Zum, zum, zum"). The delirium in the streets is well-captured from above. The architecture of the towering trio elétrico (looking here like a lit-up Mississippi showboat) is clearly visible from the side, with the dancers on the top platform and the musicians on the next level down. At the end, members of the Filhos de Gandhy can be spotted in their white turbans among the crowd.

23) OK, now back to the Madonna issue. Please compare that horrible, cold, splayed mummy photo on the front of Madonna's latest CD with this luscious recent shot of Daniela Mercury on a TV show. See what I mean? This vital woman is in touch with Brazilian nature in all its splendor. When my colleague Jack DeWitt saw the photo, he said Daniela looks like "a dryad or maenad, with a wildness in her eye." Right on target!

24) Here's a program from just a few months ago when Daniela was interviewed at length by Marilia Gabriela, a supercharged grande dame of São Paulo in the southern part of Brazil (Bahia is in the distant northeast). Again, notice Daniela's warmth, humor and relaxed sensuality compared with the laminated, posturing Madonna of "Hard Candy." At 6:55, just before she holds up some DVDs, Marilia asks about Daniela's love life, as reported in the press. Daniela affably confirms that she has a current relationship with a young, handsome Brazilian businessman, and yes, she also had an affair last year with a woman in New York, but no, she was not an architect!

25) Continuing the latter piquant theme, Daniela mischievously caused a press stir this summer when she kissed another Brazilian singer, Alinne Rosa, while recording a DVD.

(On the news report, click on the yellow line "Veja a foto ampliada" to get an enlarged view of the two women clinching against inky black.) Everyone knew immediately that it was an allusion to Madonna kissing Britney Spears onstage (a fatal moment that evidently sent Spears' career into a tailspin). Naturally, lesbians all over South America have been jubilant, as on this Web site, which has more photos of the Alinne Rosa caper but, alas, not the shot of Daniela boldly running her hand down Rosa's cleavage. (Oh, what fun!)

28) Finally, here's another revealing interview, showing Daniela's animation, openness and unpretentious graciousness, as opposed to Madonna's affectations, suspiciousness and prickly defensiveness. Case closed!

This is the story of a woman who fell in love with a city. Daniela Mercury's ultimate lover is Salvador da Bahia. No man and no woman can ever compete for her heart against the staggering variety of the city and its people. With its high hills and white beaches and its heavy burden of history, Salvador is a magical intersection of nature and culture. Many great performers have been produced by Bahia. But Daniela Mercury, through her ecstatic marriage to the soul of the city, has become its goddess.

Camille Paglia's column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at

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