This week, in a beautiful generational symmetry, EO and I went to Madonna’s Rebel Heart concert here in Hong Kong. My one and only Madonna show prior to this was a floor seat at Austin’s Frank Erwin Center on the Like a Virgin tour, May 1985, a few weeks before I graduated from high school. This spring, EO will attend her first formal dance and ‘graduate’ Y11 before beginning her school’s two-year IB program. Over thirty years between our rites of passage and yet here was Madonna – in fearsome form and wicked wit, middle-aged, twice-divorced, sex-obsessed, foul-mouthed – here was fucking Madonna.
The fourth best-selling musical act of all time. Superseded only by The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.
The most successful solo artist in the history of the American singles charts. Let that sink right in while I say her name one more time.
Screw the haters. To hell with the ageist TMZ brigade. Go home if her show starts too late for you. I don’t care how old she is or who shares her bed or even what kind of person she is behind the scenes. All that matters is what she brings to the stage, and in that arena Madonna reigns. Unrivaled. Matchless. Supreme.
She transported her full show to Hong Kong – not always the case with touring artists in Asia – and played for over two hours, joined by her band, back-up singers and about 20 dancers. The concert was a button-pushing visual feast of multimedia images, lights, poles, ramps, stairs, hydraulics and dance. Lots of dance. Throughout the show, Madonna moved seamlessly from one cultural theme to another: Samurais to start; Catholicism (of course) to heat things up; Matadors, Greasers and Flappers to express love and more sex, sex, sex; and then “Holiday” fun to finish. I expected the button-pushing and restless cultural curiosity; Madonna has always championed the unusual and the underground, the more provocative the better. She’s a human synthesizer, and I say that as a compliment. What surprised me, however, was the lightness and vulnerability she showed. She chatted, joked, queried and proclaimed to the audience: don’t ask questions, there is no answer. She wore the mantle of Queen both proudly and irreverently.
But if I could distill her performance, nay her entire artistic existence, down to one point, I would say very simply that Madonna is about the body. All shaking ass, thrusting bosom, beating heart. Her hand on a thigh and a head in her crotch. As a dancer first and foremost, she understands the visual power of motion, of open legs and intertwined limbs. Or as her concert showcased, the stunning impact of one shirtless, muscular man moving on an empty stage with only a billowing scarf for company.
Her raison d’être, if I dare to speculate, has always been about celebrating the amazing, ecstatic things we can do with our bodies, alone and in company. She made that statement with her very first single, “Everybody”, which was released in 1982. Every / Body / Come on / Dance and Sing. And she continued that manifesto by shining a light on how others try to stop us from said ecstasy, whether it’s an overbearing patriarchy, Catholic constraints on sexuality or our very own hang-ups. Every / Body / Get Up And / Do Your Thing. Madonna’s body electric is both personal and political, and she makes her stand not only with music and lyrics but movement as well. As if Martha Graham were a pop star…
After the show, EO and I speculated as to what Madonna would do between her two shows in Hong Kong. (If you see her hiking The Peak, tell her I said Hi!) I figured after 2+ hours on stage, in heels, she probably needed some serious physio, or at least a massage. The thought made me a little sad. Madonna’s getting older, her knees must be killing her.
I know a lot of people reckon she’s well past her prime, that the best she can do these days is hitch her wagon to Nicki Minaj or Drake. But I disagree. Though I hadn’t seen her in concert for decades, her Rebel Heart show was indisputable proof that her creative vigor and taste for provocation is alive and well. She still owns the stage, whether she’s alone and singing “La Vie En Rose” or leading her dancers down the catwalk in a fantastic rendition of “Deeper and Deeper”, everyone strutting and vogueing. Even EO said she didn’t think Madonna was trying to be a teenager. The Queen was dancing, singing, doing her thing, and we were lucky to be a part of it.
How many musical icons not only survive but prosper as they head gently in to that good night? How many still have something to say? The list is short. Prince, Jagger, McCartney, Aretha, Bruce? Maybe. Bowie we just lost, Streisand barely sings anymore, Diana Ross has been MIA for years. Sinatra got it right, but then who else? Who changed pop music forever? Who’s left?
*All Hong Kong concert photos courtesy of a lovely and talented friend who had way better seats than I did! 😉
So one of the best things about being part of the ‘Dragonfruit’ anthology is getting to know the work of other expatriate women writers. Women such as award-winning author, Suzanne Kamata, who lives in Japan. Her anthology essay, ‘Love and Polka Dots’, tells of a museum trip with her daughter, who is a budding artist herself but disabled, much like the artist they’ve come to see – Yayoi Kusama.
Suzanne’s interested in strength through self-expression and how creativity can be an empowering force, especially for young people. Two of her YA novels – Screaming Divas and Gadget Girl: the art of being invisible – deal directly with this idea. And since the protagonists of Screaming Divas start an all-girl rock band (heck yeah!), I thought it’d be fun to query Suzanne about her musical tastes and influences, and whether or not they intersect with what her kids – two teenagers – are listening to.
Q: Let’s start with your personal experiences with music. As a writer of a rock-oriented book, you must have some seminal music moments in your life. Bands that changed your life and such. Can you share a couple?
A: I remember the first time I heard The Psychedelic Furs. I was in high school, living in Michigan – typical, bored suburban youth. And then I heard this great new band that wasn’t the usual Top 40 or heavy metal, or whatever else we could listen to in that bland town. After that I really got into what we now call “alternative” music. So that was pretty significant.
And I did love The Go-Go’s, and all those girl groups that followed.
I was too shy to get up on stage, so I mostly fantasized about being a rock star. A lot of my male friends were in bands, though. I wasn’t a groupie, but I was a female friend of band members. The band Hootie and the Blowfish used to practice in the house next door to mine, when we were in college. They had keg parties every weekend on the lawn, and they’d invite me over, and we’d drink beer and they’d play until the cops came. When they became famous, I was living in Japan. I took the ferry to Osaka to see them perform live again. Music, in general, has always been very important to me.
Q: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done for rock-n-roll?
A: Hmm. I was never too crazy, but as a straight arrow high school student, I managed to get permission to skip a day of school to be d.j. for a day at an alternative rock radio station in Grand Rapids. I wrote a story about it for the school newspaper – my one moment of rock and roll glory. A slightly crazier moment was when I was on foreign study in Avignon. A friend and I hitchhiked a ride with these two hashish-smoking French guys in a Deux-Chevaux to a Simple Minds concert. (Shhh. Don’t tell my mom.) I remember the car broke down on the way home, but it was a great concert.
Q: As I get older, I’ve found new technology has actually restored my faith in music as it’s so easy to discover fantastic music, both old and new. And now that my kids are older I have a lot more time to listen and explore. How about you? How do you consume music these days? And has living in Japan influenced what you listen to?
A: I totally agree. I love having access to music from all over the world. Sometimes I stream French radio stations, or more often, I download “All Songs Considered” from NPR onto my MP3 player and listen while I’m exercising. I like to check out YouTube videos. I teach college students, and they sometimes cue me in on popular Japanese musicians, such as Bump of Chicken and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.
Q: Do you often share your music with your kids? How does that go over? They’re teens so are they very receptive to your tastes? Also, and I’m not sure what the music experience is like for your daughter re beats, melody, lyrics etc., but do you play tunes for her?
A: When my son was younger, I drove him to school every day while playing CDs. He developed a taste for Elvis Presley, Darius Rucker, and Bruno Mars. He really likes Lady Gaga, and some other Japanese groups, like one called Exile. I don’t know exactly what he listens to, because he mostly consumes music on his iPod, but I know that he downloaded some of my music, including Diana Ross and the Supremes‘ Greatest Hits. The first time I heard “Baby Love” leaking out his earphones I was secretly delighted. (The band in Screaming Divas does punk versions of Supremes songs.)
My daughter, who is deaf, has an interest in music, but her experience of it is different, of course. It’s still a little mysterious to me. I think she likes to see outrageously dressed singers. They do a lot of drumming at her school in music class. I think she enjoys the rhythm section. She’s been bugging us (her parents) to take her to karaoke, so maybe we’ll try that sometime soon.
Q: Can you name three artists you’d really like your kids to know (and hopefully appreciate)?
A: Just to have a solid base in Western music, I think they need to be familiar with David Bowie, Madonna, and Michael Jackson. And maybe Nirvana.
Q: I haven’t read Screaming Divas but I get the impression from the synopsis that rock music is both refuge and springboard for the four band members. What inspired that?
A: That’s pretty much how it turned out, but mainly I wanted to write a novel about an all-girl group. I was inspired by the Riot Grrl movement, which involved many different forms of expression, including ‘zines and art. I think any kind of creative activity can be incredibly empowering. (My previous book was about a girl with a disability who finds strength through drawing manga.) You can create a world for yourself through music or writing or art.
And as a refuge – yeah, music is something that you can just kind of get lost in. I used to spend hours in my room listening to music.
Q: Looking at YA literature as a whole, this seems to be a golden time for gutsy, independent female protagonists. How do you see it? Is the YA heroine the real deal? And what’s so big about dystopian literature – why is it so popular? (this last question is just my personal query 🙂
A: There are certainly a lot of strong heroines, which is a very good thing. Some that come to mind are the main character Jet Black in Jet Black and the Ninja Wind, and Katniss in The Hunger Games. Maybe its popularity has something to do with hard times in real life such as the ongoing wars, bad economy, concerns about global warming. I think that dystopian literature may have reached its saturation point, however. More realistic books are moving into the limelight. My fingers are crossed.
Thanks Suzanne! And thanks everyone for reading!
If you’d like to know more about the work of Suzanne Kamata, find her at:
ATTENTION MILLENNIAL GIRLS EVERYWHERE:
Never fear, therockmom is here! To advise, to educate and of course, to embarrass you, as most moms are want to do. (Do what you’re good at, I say.)
Yes, I know you’re sinking under a mountain of college debt. Yes, I know it’s tough to get a job or even an internship out there. And yes, I realize you girls don’t even know how to date. Maybe you’re too worried about climate change or budget cuts, I don’t know.
Btw, if you don’t believe me about the dating thing, click here. Weird but true.
But I’ve been contemplating your various issues and crises (and watching Girls once a week) and I think I can help. After careful study, including an exhaustive, multi-generational survey and lots of web surfing, I’ve pinpointed the one area, the one crucial variable, where Generation Y women truly struggle. And if you can change this one thing – say it with me, “Yes, I can!” – I think you’ll find your horizons will broaden, the skies will clear and you’ll enjoy life more.
So what, you ask, is Gen Y’s missing X Factor?
You have no Rock Gods.
Let’s be honest here, your music has a serious masculinity problem. I mean, do you really want to see Jay Z or Pitbull shirtless? Can you imagine Mumford & Sons with groupies? Do they even have groupies? And while he may love his torso and his tattoos, raise your hand if you think Adam Levine is truly dangerous. Come on now, one of 2012’s hottest bands – Fun. – is by name and reputation absolutely not dangerous.
If you still don’t believe me, see my helpful chart below.
I blame it on two influences: the all-singing, all-dancing, sometimes acting Michael Jackson; and Kurt Cobain and his sweater. You see, the current generation of multi-talented pop types (Usher, Bruno, the Justins) all profess a huge appreciation for and a desire to emulate the King of Pop. And while you can clearly see the genius in “PYT”, you can’t say the man was manly. (Well, maybe in countries where English is not a first language.) Hence, the generation that followed him has somehow forgotten that when you grab your crotch you really need to mean it. Now, over in the rock world, Nirvana influenced huge numbers of bands with its groundbreaking sound, sensitive songwriting and rejection of rock norms. But perhaps Cobain’s lasting legacy will be the fuzzy cardigan he wore for MTV’s Unplugged in New York, released in 1994. With one piece of thrift store clothing he tells the world and young girls everywhere, I want to be comfy. I have no sex appeal, so just ignore my piercing blue eyes and stringy blonde hair.
And all the while the peacocks of old – Plant, Daltry, Morrison, Roth, Rose – wring their hands and cry out in a Jack Black call to arms, “Where is your chest hair? Where are your leather pants?”
Where are your Golden Gods?
Okay, I can tell you’re still a little confused. I thought you might be. Not to worry. I polled a cross section of female friends and asked them to tell me what rock star (past or present) they’d most like to go backstage to… um, meet. With their answers, I’ve put together some bullet points – a handy checklist if you will – that you can refer to as needed when you’re trying to find out if a Gen Y guy is worthy of Rock God status. Do I think there are any 20something rockers out there who compare to previous generations? That’s like asking if Harry & Taylor are the Mick & Marianne of your generation. Get serious. Nevertheless, here goes:
1. He should have hips.
Rock can be political, it can have a sensitive side, sure, but when it comes to the stuff of teenage dreams, you need to remember that all rock stars start with the pelvis – censored like Elvis’, immortalized like Jagger’s or photographed like David Lee Roth’s. And, no, Psy’s dance-y hips absolutely do not count in this equation.
2. He shouldn’t be ashamed of his body.
Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi? Both proud of their bottoms. As are Robbie Williams and Prince (maybe too much in their cases). Even a rock star as articulate as Sting is proud to take off his shirt and sport a little skin. The yoga helps. Justin T, we may have seen you shirtless, but we also know you still get carded on a regular basis, so that’s not quite manly enough for us.
3. He should date a supermodel.
This is really a given, as it furthers the whole rock-as-theater image that we need. Jack White is your best bet for Rock God status right now, being a kick-ass musician and having married and subsequently divorced a model (though I’ve never seen him shirtless, nuts!). And I don’t know where this trend came from of sensitive guys in waistcoats settling down with slim, thoughtful actresses (Gwyneth & Chris, Marcus & Carey), but it needs to stop. We want you larger than life!
4. He has to drive, or sing about driving, or sing about cars.
I know we’re all worried about greenhouse gases but how disappointing is it to learn that Millennials would give up their cars before they parted with their computers or cell phones? You cannot write a great song about being ‘Born to Telecommute’ or ‘I Love My Samsung Galaxy’ or ‘Life in the Wi-Fi Lane’. Rock-n-roll and cars, people, that’s a religion.
5. He needs leather, big hair optional.
Has Lenny Kravitz taught you nothing? Rock is not about fuzzy sweaters, it’s not about comfort. It’s about planting your foot on the edge of that Marshall amp in your motorcycle chaps and letting people worship you! Eighties style! Having said that, however, I’ll give Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl in their flannel a hall pass on this one, because they’re awesome enough as is. And because Ed ditched his first wife to marry a model, so he ticked box #3.
6. He must embrace androgyny.
Play around with your sexual identity, absolutely. But, please, not in some respectable-Rachel-Maddow kind of way. Look at Bowie, still subversive and provocative after all these years. David Lee Roth may have acted like the most hetero guy on the planet but he had long blonde hair and happily agreed to be tied up and photographed by Helmut Newton. So start with black eyeliner and something fishnet-y and work from there.
7. He should rock with the Devil.
This is an oldie but goodie and disappointingly rare these days. A loose connection to Satan – real or imagined – is not required but it helps. Remember: dark, aggressive, occult-ish. For reference, see Nick Cave and paganism, Jimmy Page, The Beatles, even Billy Idol in a pinch.
8. And finally – Act. Don’t Tweet.
When was the last time a young rock star trashed a hotel room? Exactly. Don’t just post something inappropriate, do something inappropriate. (Though not harmful to any member of any gender, natch.)
Wait, rockmom, you’re thinking, we’re 21st century women. We’ve evolved. We work at Google, we volunteer, we’re in charge of our own FB status and we like hanging with our parents. Why would we want to embrace any of these macho, misogynistic stereotypes?
Because you’re young! Because rock should be dangerous! And because rock stars should remember, by extension, that danger is their business.
I rest my case, Millennials. It’s up to you.
Jack White – here to save rock-n-roll. Did you notice that he’s driving?
Roger Daltrey: last.fm
Robert Plant: The Sun UK
David Lee Roth: tcarsc.blogspot.com
Justin Timberlake: pastemagazine.com
It started with Haircut 100.
My search, that is, for summer songs to play in the car with the kids – on the way to the pool, beach, movies. I was looking for clean, happy songs. I thought first of The Go-Go’s, of course. Playful songs with a girl power streak – just what my seven and nine year old daughters need! But then I couldn’t believe it when I realized: I do not own a Go-Go’s CD. How can that be?
So I pulled out Haircut 100 (Pelican West – see even the album name sounds fun!) along with The English Beat (Special Beat Service) and put them on heavy rotation in the car. Well, when I could get a break from Disney’s Girlz Rock 2 and Abba Gold – damn you Mamma Mia!
The next night, with my husband on a business trip, I went online to rectify that Go-Go’s omission…
See here’s the problem with iTunes and your husband being away.
FORTY-SIX song purchases later, it’s one a.m. and like a mad musicologist, I’m sitting before the glow of the computer screen creating for my children MY DEFINITIVE ’80s PLAYLISTS!
I’m putting that in all caps because when you’ve grown up in the ’80s it really deserves emphasis. And even though you might call it lame nostalgia I’m labeling it an Important Learning Experience, like the time my mom made us watch Easy Rider on Christmas Eve by explaining, “Kids, this is your history.”
So, now that you are intrigued, what is on these precious playlists?
I’ve created five playlists, each with 20 to 22 songs, each playlist with a different theme (okay wiseguys, go ahead and joke). If you listen to all five lists, you’re introduced to a glorious 100+ of pure ’80s pop and you basically become a diehard OMD, Yaz (aka Yazoo) and/or Talk Talk fan forever.
I consider these tunes quality ’80s music – some were big hits, some more obscure. I like to think of my taste as a bit left of field, so instead of Huey Lewis and The News, you get Colourfield. No Wang Chung or Cyndi Lauper but plenty of The Smithereens and Scritti Politti. And when I do pick the mega stars I like the lesser known tunes like Spandau Ballet’s “Only When You Leave” or “Hazy Shade of Winter,” which is an absolute underrated gem from The Bangles (on the Less Than Zero soundtrack, written by Paul Simon btw).
Theme One – Favs
These are my top picks. Here I’ve got a cross-section of favorite tunes from around the globe, heavy on the British contingent however: Bananarama, ABC, Haircut 100, Human League, Tears for Fears, Simple Minds, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Wham, Spandau Ballet, Talk Talk, The Smiths and rounding out with the classic “Blue Monday” from New Order. To represent the Yanks, I’ve included Madonna and Michael Jackson (“P.Y.T.” not “Beat It!”) as well as Prince and The Revolution and Nenah Cherry (remember her? She’s half-American, I think). And last but not least a couple of Australian bands (no, no, not Men At Work, get serious), namely INXS and The Divinyls. Listen to it again and again – “Pleasure and Pain” is divine.
Theme Two – Brits & a Kiwi
Let’s go deeper in to Brit pop, which had such a strong influence on me. Heck, I was a Texas kid in the suburbs – crazy hair bands from the UK were the exotic and sexy lead characters in my Eurorail-pass escapist dreams.
Here we have more contributions from the bands I listed above as well as Echo and the Bunnymen x 2 (“Rescue” and “The Cutter” kill me), Love and Rockets, Elvis Costello, A Flock of Seagulls, The Cure, Yaz, Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark (“Women III” – check it out!), The Psychedelic Furs, The Style Council and The Colourfield. I sneak in a quirky contribution from Kiwi band Split Enz – “Dirty Creatures” and top off the list with two definitive New Wave tracks: The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” and The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?” Now we can all do that head-down, asymmetrical hair, mope-y dance.
Unfortunately I couldn’t include the sitar-bop of Blancmange’s “Living on the Ceiling” because it’s unavailable on iTunes! Any thoughts/suggestions on that would be most appreciated.
*UPDATE: since I wrote this, Blancmange has appeared on Spotify – yeah! So we can all now enjoy their exotic cool.
And can I just make a career suggestion here – one of you Mileys-Britneys-Demi’s-Selena’s-Ashley’s could kick so much pop ass if you did a Pharrell Williams-produced remake of “Situation” or “Don’t Go”. Think about it. (Katy P and Ke$ha, please don’t bother because we’re just counting the days til you go away.)
So at the risk of this turning in to my senior thesis (we don’t need that much nostalgia), I’ll wrap things up and run through the rest of the lists.
Theme Three – Dance
Think more Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna, Sheila E, George Michael, Rob Base and Eazy E and again with the techno-booty-shaking Yaz.
*UPDATE: I would have preferred to include Scritti Politti’s “Lover to Fall” but alas not on Spotify so we’ll have to enjoy “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin”. Hope you’re all okay with that.
Theme Four – Rock & Pop
This list is reserved for all those pop-rock artists who weren’t necessarily groundbreaking but made some great music in the ’80s: The Police, The Pretenders, The Cars, Midnight Oil, Talking Heads, U2, Lone Justice, The Reivers (Texas band alert!), Paul Kelly (covering Crowded House), etc. plus my beloved R.E.M. and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
*UPDATE: Very limited selection of Lone Justice, Paul Kelly and The Reivers on Spotify, so I’ve had to improvise. But I added some Marshall Crenshaw for good measure.
Theme Five – A Little Edge
These songs close out the education with a slightly edgier look at ’80s rock plus a peek at rap beginnings: early Jane’s Addiction and Guns N’ Roses, Living Colour, Fishbone, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, The Plimsouls, The Sugarcubes (Bjork’s original band), Run DMC and LL Cool J (“Going Back to Cali” makes me think I’m cool), more R.E.M., a little Bowie and one of the GREAT college bands of all time: Guadalcanal Diary.
Oh, and a little Concrete Blonde.
Once when I was with my mom, “California Dreaming” by The Mamas and the Papas came on the radio and I sang along. My mom was surprised I knew the words and said, “You must have heard that in the womb!”
Now do I expect my girls to jump up and say, “Mommy this ’80s music is just so awesome, what IS it?”
But the hours I spent buying and organizing, rearranging and previewing were immensely enjoyable. Yes, I am the musical equivalent of a policy wonk. Yes, I indulge in a bit of nostalgia. Who doesn’t?
And maybe one day, I’ll catch my daughter singing, “We are young despite the years, we are concerned, we are hope despite the times.”
Long live the ’80s.