Breaking Through The Looking-Glass: Notes on Whitney Houston

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What does one say about the ultimate crossover star?  That queen, that goddess.  That searing, impenetrable, unimaginable beacon erupting from a mystical beyond, naturally gifted with gifts out of nature, effortlessly divine by way of divine effort, teeming with electric grace and timeless beauty, shattering through heights never once seen through that most rarefied of vocal talents: the innate ability to be light and dark, high and low, saccharine and scholarly, buoyant and broken all at once.  For a brief, surreal moment in time, she existed upon the earth almost by magic, wading through the titanic rush of history, utilized as a shining national siren pacifying mounted fears of apathy and alienation.  Painted and glossed to oblivion, she embodied progress, prominence, and prestige, epitomizing with her majestic background of classic soul singers as cousins that most fascinating yet oft-ignored American archetype: a black girl with a pedigree.  For many, it was that glamorous, vibrant image of which struck the loudest chord, sticking within minds the belief they were witnessing a constant, one-woman beauty pageant.  Yet, it was also the image of which obscured the genius, the mastery, the glory she emitted stronger than any other singer of her generation, something impossibly unknown to the mere mortals which she had the misfortune of existing around.

In truth, preoccupation with image both amidst the mixture of black culture and pop culture did not commence with Whitney.  Keenly aware of the historical belief that many entertainers of color were seen as loud, brash, and uncouth, the Supremes and their contemporaries were buffered and polished into cornerstones of sophistication, once-ghettofied children easily digestible for the classiest of clientele.  However, whereas the Motown set lavished in its regal, imperious standards that came off increasingly refined and untouchable, Whitney’s organic air of royalty was stretched and made accessible through a collision of everyday and otherworldly, where she appeared the girl-next-door with the most unusual radiance.  She was, in many ways, entirely perfect for the MTV world of which she was launched, showing a mesmeric quality that escaped the notion that she was, in fact, performing just as groundbreaking of feats as her predecessors.  Prior to her appearance on the burgeoning video channel, there were not many other women of color able to gain massive exposure.  Yet, there was no possibility anyone could deny someone so pretty and poised, so endearing and illuminated.  Even if this radiance was often misjudged as a falsehood or gimmick, Whitney Houston’s mere existence was earthshattering, a political campaign in and of itself.

It is why there lies such a tragic darkness upon her premature demise.  How, over time, there grew instead of appreciation and acknowledgement of a voice beyond comprehension, an agonizing perception of superficiality and fakery.  She was cast continuously as a person out of touch with her culture and community, a fool who had abused her privileges as a black Barbie doll without injecting any meaning or message behind her words.  Yet, how could such idiocies have been invented when her boundary-busting appeal spoke louder volumes than any social declaration?  How could such silliness been sired when that irresistible, soulful coo first cooked within the church choir was so obvious and so lucid upon each and every track she has recorded?  It is there in her earliest renderings – the sublime “Saving All My Love For You” that is so smooth and so silky one easily forgets its ode to infidelity, the boisterous “How Will I Know” that collides pulpit with prom night, and, most swiftly, the masterful evocation of Sunday school hymnal that is “The Greatest Love of All.”  And of course, it is there, magnified and dignified, in her crowning achievement – the most succulent, sumptuous, serene peon to romance, “I Will Always Love You.”  Even in her gooiest stage – primarily on that artifact of sheen Whitney – she still revealed herself as a child of the sanctuary, deeply aware of that fine line between turmoil and triumph, hitting always with expertise and without error.

Who else could have exacted such a stirring, mind-boggling rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” aligning generations, races, sexes, and religions, bombastic and free?  Who else could have challenged romantic and sexual taboos through the shimmer of Hollywood cinema, creating screen classicism by kissing one of the world’s biggest white action stars on an airplane runway?  And who else could have reestablished our entire order of vocal styling, influencing decades and decades of aspiring artists who must be aware they can never touch her halo?  There lives within humanity a desire to disturb the brilliance of others by our envy or perplexity of their motives.  In our minds, we desire a trajectory for our idols to follow and when they deviate or do not live up to those ideals, our faith falters and we turn our backs.  Yet, perhaps the most miraculous attribute that Whitney possessed was her lack of interest in proving herself as an activist and agent of change.  She knew instead that her power lied greatest in her art and she let that break down walls, alter perceptions, delight bodies, and satisfy souls; she allowed her impeccable skills to bring togetherness and unity and harmony into the world.  Most importantly, however, she allowed her presence to signify a shift, a move, a turn.  Never had people seen anyone as mythical and enchanting, yet as tangible and bright.  Never had people seen anyone as soft and beautiful, yet as strong and full of might.  And perhaps, never people will see anyone as such ever again.

What does one say about the ultimate crossover star?  She lived, and it was gorgeous.

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Jennifer Lopez, Video Vanguard

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Therein lies amidst this dear, quixotic century, an anxious necessity to declare greatness with spellbinding speed.  Even before something may even deserve such praise and glory, we find it absolutely paramount to extoll and project an influence or importance or impact, as if desperately hoping that our extravagant affirmation will somehow create truth.  Part of this may stem from the fact that we are living in a century not yet fully-formed, not yet knowledgeable of its values, qualities, and ideals.  There is, after all, much unfinished and undone, much waiting to be understood and concluded – an entire world patient in its eventual recreation.  Yet another part of this desire to find significance in every shred of newness is the fact that popular culture has wildly grown into a legitimate culture in and of itself.  Sometime in the 1990s, the last grasp of popular conservatism failed to keep tight in a world inundated by The Simpsons, gangsta rap, and Geraldo, giving way to a society ready to sever its snobbish perplexities and fully embrace the reckless environs of pop culture.  What was once lowbrow and tawdry slowly became mainstream and mainstay, transforming how we thought, spoke, lived, and dreamed as we veered closer to the dawn of the millennium.

It was amongst these radical cultural upheavals that MTV had emerged victorious, somehow able to reinterpret and refashion all of the madness and ebullience with their plethora of mind-boggling cartoons, dramas, and, of course, music videos.  The Video Music Awards, then, had grown to become MTV’s flagship special – a maniacal, anarchic parade of pop culture du jour, bringing in the most entertaining and controversial celebrities and personalities to self-destruct under one roof with a level of hilarity, sincerity, and absolute aplomb.  During those final days of the millennium, it was infallible and highly-anticipated in its ability to provoke conversation, thought, and alter perceptions of music and fame.  Yet, as the century began and the channel devoted to youth rearranged its schedule, so did the magic and allure of that fateful award show.  Little by little, its vitality diminished, until its current state of bewilderment and doubt.  For many, it will never return to its mythical magnificence, too far gone for its own good.  However, if there is one reason for any to continue to acknowledge its presence, it is the burgeoning importance of the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.

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Because as the VMAs fell into ruin, it lifted its most coveted award to the highest degree, creating a mystical lifetime achievement for the most iconic video artists.  In certain ways, this seems a breathtaking glorification only given to those in the midst of some sort of vague commercial return to the spotlight.  However, there is merit in receiving such an honor – the only one of its kind for an art form that appears to still be seen with cynicism.  Music video is, by far, one of the most accessible, charming, and efficient mediums, mixing song, dance, and poetry into astonishing displays of passion, freedom, and liberation.  Many are designed for thrill and bliss, whilst others strive for ambition and depth.  Yet, regardless of which angle chosen, music videos simply have the capacity to do what many other art forms cannot: completely change one’s life within the span of three minutes – bringing to fore ideas, concepts, theories, and philosophies by the unyielding glamour of image and sound.  The way we are seduced, enthralled, entranced.  The way we are stunned, surprised, amazed.  Glimpsing some of the art form’s greatest pieces, it is no wonder of why the VMAs even began and why MTV, at its tallest, was a monumental force to be reckoned with.

And in truth, that Golden Age of Music Video may be somewhere far beyond our reach.  However, there is no mistaking that Jennifer Lopez, the impending recipient of the Video Vanguard Award, desired to keep that ornate era alive as long as possible.  Though she did not possess vocals of girth, strength, and soul, Jennifer did possess a preternatural sense of confidence, vivacity, and ferocity, springing to life before any and every camera of which crossed her path.  She was a consummate dancer above all, but also an actress of unimaginable connection and honesty, casting excitable familiarity and capricious sensuality, never apologizing for her irresistible attraction yet never allowing it to supersede her bounty.  In videos, in particular, Jennifer found the greatest and most appreciative vehicle for her diversified talents, giving the world the striking image of a Latina unbelievably powerful and untouchable – a true one-of-a-kind that could not be boxed in or characterized.  Reaching closer to her receiving the Video Vanguard, I cannot help but think of that visual splendor, and though there may be too many to acknowledge, for me, there are perhaps five videos that have truly shaped not only my existence, yet also my perception of Jennifer Lopez as one of the most incredible musical personalities of our time.

If You Had My Love

Most debut clips serve merely as auditions for the upstarts-in-question, glorified screen-tests that possess far more awkwardness than allure.  However, in the sensuous, ultra-modern Orwellian landscape of “If You Had My Love,” Jennifer smoothly embodies a tantalizing virtuoso, writhing panther-like down darkened hallways, swinging limbs across cozy chairs in brightened rooms, her only focus upon the cameras streaming her every move to faceless followers across the globe.  Primarily seen through the hungry, turned-on perspective of a young slacker, the futuristic, millennial gloss evokes the glacial depravity of cheap porn – that slick, sly comfort in saturating your mind with eroticism.  However, it is both Jennifer’s total confidence in her body (especially during a jaw-dropping breakdown) and in her words that twists the lurid fantasy upon its head, revealing the starlet as a dominant master, teasing and toying with unbridled pleasure.

Waiting for Tonight

The dawn of the new millennium struck both fascination and fear within the hearts of the world’s population, causing even the most rational to question technology’s strength once the clocks hit the year 2000.  And although the inclusion of such tropes grew abundant the closer the 20th century moved towards its finale, the mesmerizing, immaculate clip for “Waiting for Tonight” – perhaps her finest – transformed that now-amusing confusion into something majestic, wondrous, and spectacular.  Chronicling the singer and her clique voyaging through the jungle on the hunt for festivities, we are first baked in darkened, noirish palettes and then beautifully accosted by an army of lime lasers, flickering and frolicking with immediacy, anticipation, and even tension.  Split in between scenes of Jennifer’s body delicately encrusted by twinkling gems, there is a maddening, suffocating anxiety lurking amidst the enchantment, reaching a fever pitch once the clock indeed strikes midnight and all party-goers pause as the lights die.  Yet, six seconds later, there is power once more and the party continues without error, giving comfort and ease where there was only despair, pacifying our doom with the delight of dance.

Love Don’t Cost A Thing

Sometime in the early millennium, the music video grew into a shiny, shimmering machine of arrogance and frivolity, unashamed and unconcerned with the excess in which it basked.  It was about pure spectacle, pure theatrics, pure dramatics – and for an artist like Jennifer Lopez, it was perhaps the most beneficial period of prominence.  Having recently broken with hip hop magnate P. Diddy, the unwavering veneer of “Love Don’t Cost A Thing” creates an excellent dissection of celebrity culture by wallowing in the varnish that so dearly characterized her former lover while also bemoaning its horrific and destructive tendencies.  Sickened and trapped by the empty, meaningless materialism surrounding her, Jennifer leaves her sprawling mansion, hits the freeway, and disposes herself of every sparkling remembrance of a life she no longer values.  Nothing seems to matter anymore, nothing will ever replace the boundless, incredulous romance permeating within her soul.  As she finds solace on a vacant beach awash with Antonioni existentialism, she receives a postcard from her absentee amour yet, without pause, rips it deliriously – relishing in her newfound liberation, in her wily escape of a banal existence, in her gorgeous return to self.

Jenny from the Block

While “Love Don’t Cost A Thing” shunned the wasted decadence of which unlimited funds can afford, the verbose celebration of “Jenny from the Block” signaled a complete and utter retraction, salivating in mindless glitz and ostentation with the zeal of a Roman emperor.   Though highly criticized for its brazen, flagrant display of the then-magnanimous relationship between Jennifer and Ben Affleck, the clip of her most iconic single actually seamlessly evokes the then-rising obsession with fame permeating American society, interplaying shots of a supremely ghetto fabulous Jennifer dancing upon the street with rapid snaps of she and her boytoy aboard yachts taken by an unseen paparazzo.  This kind of purple-tinged voyeurism may not radiate or titillate in the same fashion of her debut video, yet its glorious prelude to the TMZ madness of which we live today – feeding our disgust and intrigue for 1% life – feels just as vital.

I’m Glad

Homages to classic films can be quite tricky in music video, however Jennifer’s warm, flawless recreation of Flashdance, arguably the first movie geared and marketed towards MTV consumers, is one of the genre’s most exhilarating tokens of affection.  Perfectly painted as Alex Owens, the steel worker who moonlighted as an exotic dancer, the effortlessly stylish clip is an undeniable showcase of a lifetime of movement, reimagining the starlet as a brilliant, optimistic novice fighting for her moment in the sun, almost in the same fashion one envisions Jennifer nearly thirty years ago.  Stepping into an audition room, she is bombarded with the toils of which led to that particular point: looking back on the club where she shook ass and the humble lodgings where she practiced with a sense of understanding and awareness; she knows where she has come from and she does not want to go back.  It is that staunch, profound determination that causes her, in the clip’s last moments, to shed all remaining angst and lose herself upon the table where a panel of judges watch with fierce curiosity, slowly submitting to her sanguine spirit.

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Stop Pretending: Robyn’s “Missing U”

Perhaps no greater tragedy has befallen human life than the remembrance of dead love.  How it creeps, slithers, and emerges unawares and unexpected, cruelly catching one at their coolest and most confident.  How it conjures, evokes, and radiates insecurities and images one believed long-since buried with cackling glee and glimmer.  How it sparks and spins slick snaps of sounds, smells, and touches as if idling a merry-go-round of doom.  Even when the heart seems brave and bountiful, even when the rays of sunshine have blazed through the hell of shadows, a single strike of memory of what-once-was can easily alter all gilded elegance and revert one to a ruinous mess.  It is then when we are confronted with the longing and leftovers, the pieces of the puzzle still unsolved and unbelievable.  It is then when we are desperate for a rescue or escape, all the while knowing deep down that the damage has been done too clearly: we must recollect the flaws and failures that led to this brokenness, we must remember the relationship that we wish not.

Within the confines of slow, sullen, and maudlin majesties, such open wounds could swiftly ignite sadistic fantasy.  Yet amidst the mirage of fairy-dust-encrusted twinkles upon Robyn’s incandescent “Missing U,” this recreation of events becomes rather cathartic, allowing the melancholy to morph into a slice of jubilation, allowing the coldness to transform into a breath of brightness.  As the sparkles give way to a steady, pulsating groove that is not unlike the anxious murmuring of a jilted heart, our heroine’s ghostly past is made present, still locked within the surprise that everything has destructed and that never again will her significant other’s scent collide with her presence.  Clinging to old pillows, Robyn is desperate for any totem to their days of bliss, but her declaration that at least her lover “left” her “something” only glorifies the delusion permeating within, forcing her, in turn, to face the truth with even greater realism.  “I keep digging through our waste of time,” she briskly admits in the chorus, the pulsating groove joined in a passionate dance by those mystical twinkles, now delirious and frenzied, “But the picture’s incomplete.”  And as she takes a deep breath, coming to grips, knowing where she truly stands, there is a brief pause and then: “’Cause I’m missing you, I miss you.”  And it feels as if both a birth and a death, a breakthrough and a setback, an epiphany and a nightmare, striking with a clean, garish blow that feels a near-heaven as much as it feels a near-hell.

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With the floodgate now burst through, Robyn’s memories intensify posthaste, wrapping her mind deeper into a frosted state of ponderance, feeling that tainted, maniacal rush of awareness growing faster and faster.  The delusions and dramatics are fading, the rose tint opaque; all signs and clues of their romantic glow are lost in darkness.  Suddenly, this overlapping of truths reaches a startling, radical domination, becoming too much to partake, and once finally she admits, “I’ve turned all my sorrow into glass, it don’t leave no shadow,” all gloves and masks and secrets are taken off, all the gauzelike dreaminess abolished.  We are left only with the fresh, marvelous discovery that behind all the lucidity one craves to embrace, there indeed remains that glaring actuality of complete collapse.  It was, in fact, always there, underneath the lies, fictions, and false apparitions.  Yet, there is no more room for deception and fakery; we are left only with the realization that the only way one can push through the pain is by acknowledging that pain still persists within.  Because we believe ourselves to be mature and stronger than we often are, the true road to recovery seems nearer from the horizon; however, it is that deception in our strength that is even more damaging, forcing us to gloss over hurt in incredibly irresponsible hues.  By the time Robyn reaches the song’s middle-eight, it is that lying-strength that she has finally shed; she is, as it were, fully human.

Against a hypnotic, cascading new wave landscape equally evoking enchanted heavens and garish galaxies, “Missing U” glides pass its torment and tragedy in greedy giddiness, epitomizing the devoted ethos of Robyn’s oeuvre of dancing through one’s downfalls.  Despite the collision of realities, we feel golden and sweetened and beautiful, we feel wise and radiant – those dazzling twinkles and those volcanic thuds creating solace and sanctity, eliminating the bold, useless anchors stuck to our souls.  As the otherworldly euphoria grasps to impenetrable heights, sizzling and simmering and soaring like a rocket giving a plié, there is a sense of renewal and rejuvenation as we continue to forgive ourselves for silly suppressions and dismantle the fantasies that no longer exist.  “There’s an empty space you left behind,” Robyn repeats mantra-like during the finale, her voice now calmed and weathered, now settled and true.  She knows that the agonies are not over, but she also knows that there is no more pretending; she wants to move forward and she wants to remember – she knows that it is impossible not to, that it is, in fact, essential.

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As her first solo release in nearly a decade, one could easily decipher “Missing U” as a beacon to Robyn’s audience – a flawlessly-drawn love letter chronicling the incredibly surreal symbiosis that arises from an artist and their fans.  How that too, if left incomplete and disoriented, can feel as if a break-up, as if a dead romance that has lost its fuse.  Yet, it is truly that masterful array of interpretation that makes Robyn one of the most vigorous, courageous, and intelligent pop stars of our time, allowing endless subversion to reign supreme without losing one ounce of rhythm, dignity, or vibe.  There is no desire to fool or confound by way of arrogant wit and obscurity; there is only delight in hitting one as directly as possible.  By stretching simplicity to its greatest limits, Robyn manages to make some of the most remote and obvious emotions appear polished and brand-new, transforming our oldest and dearest heartaches into today’s bloodbath.  With “Missing U,” she reestablishes this power with bewitching wonder and amazement; yet, it is the spine-tingling vulnerability that ultimately gives it its grace, reminding us that it is okay to remember, that it is okay to reflect, that it is okay to let go.

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Subversion on the Dancefloor: 10 Years of “Just Dance”

For any soul that has dwelled deeply amidst the confines of clublands, there often arises a moment within the night when one’s senses commence to fade. Such alterations contain a marvelous seamlessness, slipping and sneaking up unannounced, shamelessly dragging its once-lucid captive into a rapid state of perplexity and reflection, of truth and phantasm. At times, that denial of reason and embrace of intoxication reflects a dangerous ease into the psychological beyond, allowing sordid demons and cavernous ghosts to emerge full-speed. Yet, if one is delightfully barricaded by the avalanche of thunderous throbs, plethora of pulsating bodies, and blaze of mystical strobe lights, then that step into uneasy euphoria becomes something of a colossal dare in pushing oneself to a state of limitlessness, to the point of no return. Combatting against distress, horror, and anxiety, a grandiose delusion and optimism is then birthed and ignited as a buffer and cushion of goodwill, happy endings, and yellow brick roads. It is, after all, the nightclub in which communal desires are given their most radical clearance, offering many the chance to black out of their everyday banalities for a brief moment of complete carelessness; one only wants to feel good. Yet, even amongst that blinded, debauched sweetness, still looms that ill-fated breath of absolute reality waiting past the velvet ropes, constantly forcing one to destroy its fate before it destroys their own.

Never has that complex, challenging after-hours mindfuck been more gloriously exemplified than on Lady Gaga’s irresistible debut single “Just Dance.” Rocketing down into our dismal atmosphere ten years prior, its glittering, gloss-laden surface radiated against the consistent radio ennui, those magnifying, stuttering synths triumphantly buzzing at the onset as if futuristic coronation horns announcing the arrival of an extraterrestrial monarch. If one, however, was not hypnotized by that candy-coated rush of futurism, then undoubtedly, they would be drawn in by the mystical, operatic cries coming from the formerly Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, permeating through the blue-tinted Europop bliss with a frenzied, uncertain urgency. It is, as it were, a voice of impeccable soul, of glistening funk yet it is also one of bubbly desperation, of damned innocence; she is both elated about her state of befuddlement yet also shocked by the madness that has generated because of such. She has lost her drink, her man, her keys, and her phone – she has lost, perhaps even, her mind. Though, as the failures and mishaps pile up in ridiculous succession, Gaga continually harks back to the remarkable notion that everything’s “gonna be okay,” truthfully, in her ruinous logic, believing that all will work itself out.

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It is a breathtaking, amusing, yet ultimately poignant adage that spoke – and continues to speak – to a society on the verge of utter ambivalence. In 2008, as the pace of political peace and financial freedom came to a grinding halt, a sense of apathy and disillusion grew exponentially amidst a generation raised to believe they would inherit a rich, prosperous world. Realizing their economical dreams were soon to become woes, it is no wonder that many turned to the hedonism of club-life as a refuge, indulging in every new sound that promised an escape from the hellish environs they inhabited. That was, in fact, what made “Just Dance” such a colossal, magnanimous work of art – its effortless ability to capture that burgeoning sense of disgust and failure and reconstruct it as an anthem for renewal. By asserting that things are gonna be “okay” in a world inundated by terrorism and greed, Gaga played both the role of the self-conscious epicurean pacifying herself out of fear and of the decadent guru providing a happy space to annihilate tensions. This becomes even more apparent as the track toggles forward and Gaga’s remarks become increasingly nonsensical, mimicking that meandering mellowness that encroaches the glazed mind with each new drink. Here, she bravely accepts her faults and flaws, marinates in them even, knocking away the darkness of tomorrow for the brightness of the present with an elegant tiptoe between mania and mirth not unlike the most delicious pieces of hippie psychedelia.

Yet, more than anything, it would be rather foolish to reminisce on the brilliance of “Just Dance” without acknowledging the electrifying music video which accompanied its nocturnal merriment. Coolly directed by visionary Melina Matsoukas, the clip chronicles a boombox-clad Lady Gaga arriving at an already-dead party in the heart of faceless suburbia with the sole intention of sparking the flame once more. Adorned in a Bowie bolt, sharp, thickened sunglasses and a severe neon-flavored shoulder-pad ensemble, a steely sophistication and importance exudes in spades from the starlet, creating before our eyes – as the greatest of earliest videos – an entirely new icon waiting to be dissected and admired. Instantly, she seems untouchable, unreachable, unassailable; however, once the groove settles, so unleashes the charismatic, kitschtastic party child, bringing life to the zombified guests and fearlessly mugging for the camera whilst straddling an inflatable whale in a kiddie pool. It is that second revelation – that Gaga was in on the joke – which also made “Just Dance” such a subversive dancefloor breakthrough. It wasn’t that pop stars had stopped creating masterful club hits or refused to poke fun at their own personalities prior; yet no one in mainstream 21st Century Pop had ever concocted their image and message with such polarizing seriousness. Broken down in increments, there emerges a mystical hilarity about Gaga’s drunken stream-of-consciousness, and within the clip’s TMZ-flavored lens, that mystical hilarity hints at the kind of pop art deconstruction she would soon become famous for.

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How then, does one totally assert the genesis of one of the most fascinating, endearing, and paramount Pop careers of our baby century? How then, does one totally view the standing of one of the most bombastic, unyielding, and unwavering monsters to engulf nightlife? There is no doubt that Lady Gaga has released a bevy of greater, more polished, more experimental works since she crash-landed upon our planet. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to find something of more radical efficiency and stellar ingenuity. Though I myself found no sense of innovation or originality upon my first listens, time has eclipsed such necessities and proved them otherwise. Ensconced in simplistic naivete, “Just Dance” now bears the genteel markings of great tragicomedy, a picaresque folk tale for noxious club-goers, taking the most obvious elements of one of our most traditional art forms – the dance banger – and turning it inside out. It is a plea, a call-to-arms, a call-for-help, and a simmering rapture all at once; it is an inaudible whisper of solidarity amidst the cacophony of impending disasters. And as we, 10 years later, continue to move closer to even greater mystifications, it is perhaps that whisper in which we need to hear loudest.

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The Endless Magic of Black Cool: Notes on Dirty Computer

Coolness has often been something perceived natural for blacks.  That is not to say that no other ethnic group possesses a similar organic majesty or enchantment; yet, within the American landscape, where black culture has significantly shaped the most cherished of national art forms, it is hard to escape the notion that there is something particularly incredible and phenomenal about our souls.  Some may view such intrigue as a hinderance – the stepping stone into leading other groups to assuming all blacks speak, eat, dress, and dance the same.  It can lead to the radical, maddening notion that our culture is merely designed to be consistently borrowed, pilfered, stolen, and abolished by those who otherwise despise our skin.  That sense of black coolness can be seen as a crutch, as a way for others to create control and boundary, to keep one “in their place.”  Yet, for others, the ideal of black cool is something deeper, more refined.  It is something of pride, of privilege, of power.  It is something of integrity, of rapture, of exaltation.  It is within those great believers that all of the hatred, malice, cruelty, and injustice is replenished, reformed, reinterpreted into a badge of honor.  Think Miles Davis, think Nina Simone, think Gil Scott-Heron, think Lenny Kravitz, think Lauryn Hill, think Andre-3000, think Janelle Monáe.  With black coolness, you are witnessing those raised to believe they are nothing shamelessly spitting in your face, telling you that they are, in fact, something quite extraordinary.

The birth of black cool is arbitrary as our pride supersedes mass thought, but such fascination undoubtedly slipped into the popular consciousness at the dawn of the jazz age.  As the well-bred children of Victorian youth shed their rickety ideals for the rambunctious, riotous rhythms erupting in nightclubs and speakeasies, suddenly the once-derided black musician became the most sought-after idol.  Everyone wanted to do the Charleston and sing like Billie Holiday; everyone wanted to join a band like Louis Armstrong’s or spend a night in Harlem.  Only a generation prior, blacks had been seen merely as horrific leftovers of slavery, easily categorized as burdensome, difficult, libidinous, and worthless.  Yet, as white actors and singers readily adapted the mannerisms and vernacular of their darker counterparts with intense adoration, they altered the perception of black culture as mere trash, welcoming jazz and its associated properties as the first true musical art forms created in America.  Only now in our stately, naïve century do we view such a genre with a degree of solemn sophistication; however, in its heyday, jazz was Pop, it was the decadent throb that kept the kiddies up till morning.

With black coolness having taken off, one would assume its hosts would gain equaled acceptance.  Unfortunately, what arose from this artistic admiration would become a consistent theme throughout America with black culture: a desire to accept its exterior without embracing the interiors of those who’ve created it.  Famed journalist Norman Mailer would chronicle this paradox in his timeless 1957 essay “The White Negro,” aligning bebop-era cultural appropriation with Cold War hysteria, yet it takes very little to witness the consistency with the blues, rock n’ roll, and even disco, house, and techno.  Hip hop – the most immediate purveyor of black cool as of late – is experiencing itself a breaking down of barriers as more non-blacks establish grounds within its confines, an act that speaks beautifully of the merits and brilliance of our globalized world, yet also creates a sweet anxiety of protection and preservation amongst certain gatekeepers.  As with other art forms, one does not want to feel as if their culture has moved on without them, that those who are coming in late to the party are breaking the ancestral dishes on their way out.  That kind of negligence and disinterest in the creators of one’s pleasures is what motivates those icons of black cool, reminding them that their coolness is to be appreciated and proudly hailed.  They have seen the erasure of those before and wish only to carry their foibles – reclaim and redress them with love.

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It is that unyielding sentiment that is most pervasive on Janelle Monáe’s otherworldly masterpiece, Dirty Computer.  Undoubtedly, she is a child of the modern – endlessly inspired by the alienation and technophilia of the 21st century, constantly reinterpreting our deepest fears and possibilities with a mixture of the macabre and mesmeric.  She floats, ballet-style, through the cold, distracting anomie and emerges remarkably supernatural, capturing hedonism and nihilism with effortless taste and seamless wonder.  At the same time, hers is an air old-fashioned and classic, nestling the noses of juke-joint goddesses, funk saints, and R&B divas with tendered romanticism.  She is aware of those who came before her and gleams that knowledge in respectful hues, mixing each style gracefully into the other as if they had always been made that way; it is a gift she shares with her close mentor, Prince, whose aural collages bridged gaps between cultures and genres in maniacal ease and intellect.  It is no mistake then that Dirty Computer feels like a complete encapsulation of a certain millennial-laden black cool: an immaculate playlist devised by those beautiful outsiders in love with both the alternative and accessible – those oft-misunderstood bundles of history, individuality, and elegance.

Oftentimes, it is the oddball who becomes the true symbol of black cool.  Oftentimes, it is the one whose mind digs deeper, spirit leaps higher, and imagination expands further.  Usually, they are loners, searching for the right tribe with whom to cause mayhem.  Usually, they are free thinkers, disconnected from restriction and authority.  Usually, they are incredible stylists, concocting images of power and complete comfortability.  There is a nerve, a slick saintliness within these geniuses that embraces the absurd, the surreal, and the strange whilst clinging to the closest cultural connections: groove, soul, and euphoria.  Only from such a being could one receive the majestic, exhilarating coos of surf-pop auteur Brian Wilson on the opening titular track, before being thrust into one of the greatest, most liberating pieces of audacious jubilee.  Against a pastel-coated ebullience, “Crazy, Classic, Life” ponders apocalyptic ruin in the midst of the dance floor, basking in ruthless spontaneity of the grand possibility that all will soon be finished.  Though what mostly plays as a simple, straightforward pop-doom ditty slowly morphs into a masterful indictment of black excellence, as Janelle fiercely acknowledges her pride, fear, hope, and distress with a smooth, sultry rapper’s cadence, proving her musical breadth and immeasurable strength in one fail swoop.

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Such vigor grows wildly upon Dirty Computer, transforming its dystopian concept of rebels being wiped of their soiled magnificence into an exquisite manifesto on the beautiful freedoms often unjustly usurped by those with greater control.  Yet, Janelle’s vision is not one of defeat or discouragement, but one of renewal and reclaim, of truth and sobriety.  This is apparent throughout the sun-stroked environs of “Take A Byte,” which alludes to some of the most prominent and pivotal women throughout history and fiction, creating a seamless nexus between Janelle’s colossal carnality and those infamous libertines of yesteryear.  Within the bubbly intoxication of “Screwed,” a taut parade of colorful sexual innuendos can barely mask the encroaching terror and wiliness of a nation breaking on disaster.  Upon “Django Jane,” she dives headfirst into a wonderland of roughneck radiance, championing black femininity in a startling mixture of sincerity and ambition.  And on the slinking, slow-burning funktastic “I Got the Juice,” Janelle quite brilliantly warns any potential defiant lurking her way that “if you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back.”

Such excellent, mind-boggling defiance also falls heavily with another of Dirty Computer’s greatest assets: its bold, brave celebration of queer love, fluidity, and self-acceptance.  Within black culture, there are certain aspects that do not allow room or space for anyone who does not adhere to a heterosexual existence, creating great divisions and igniting perplexities amongst those merely attempting to live their lives as proudly and happily as possible.  While some sadly become casualties to hatred and expectation, many others have increasingly embraced their truest selves, denying any chances of darkness and ruin to filter their thoughts.  Those who were once taught to keep their emotions and feelings hidden and shut away have thrust clear of the insolence, the indignance, and the noxious.  For queer people of color in particular such declarations are not only poignant but absolutely revolutionary, peppering upon a pop record the kind of lost shame and gained independence that has before seemed nonexistent.  Women, in particular, have always been seen as those whose carnal tastes have been decided by others, yet on Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe abolishes centuries of codified black sexuality and femininity, exterminating the permeance of patriarchal pestilence with endless valor.

As one of the most current icons of black cool, it may seem unfair to expect constant greatness from Ms. Monáe.  For it is true that as much of a privilege it is to embody such ideals, there lingers that vicious flipside of having one’s soul drained, transforming one to a shell of their former regality.  History, after all, is filled with young, gifted black geniuses who were torn down by their own torturous thoughts and the widespread dreams of their handlers and audience.  However, one of the most remarkable components of Janelle Monáe is her unwavering, almost inconceivable confidence in everything in which she does.  It is as if she has seen her destiny laid before her and is merely walking the path in the smoothest, most dignified fashions.  Privy of her power, she is also aware of her own honesty: that she is not some glorified role model, some deified queen designed for the pleasures of philosophical banalities.  She has, in fact, the awareness that all may not be solved by her own suggestion.  But it is her spirit, her presence that allows that burgeoning awareness to appear ever-brighter and ever-possible.  With Dirty Computer, she has splendidly imagined the future in the present and, in turn, has fully established herself as one of the grandest cultural architects of these strange, stupendous times.

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On the Periphery: Christina Aguilera’s “Accelerate”

Within the realm of modern Pop, there appears an aggressive, unbridled desire to let oneself go.  That indulgent, artistic desire to marinate in a sonic whirlpool without care – to push boundaries, collide worlds, create universes, abolish all that came prior.  Expectation and necessity have been set ablaze, rules and regulations have been forgotten entirely.  We have, in essence, reached an era of deconstruction.  For once upon a time, most were satisfied with merely producing well-oiled works of flawless perfection and immaculate wonder, easily translating our deepest dreams and darkest fears with the smoothest sense of possibility and togetherness.  That kind of simplicity and cleanliness was – and quite remains – what Pop perhaps was all about at its absolute core.  However, this current, burgeoning desire to experiment, reshape, and generate has enlivened new passions and altered new landscapes, allowing even some of the grandest and greatest superstars to shed their cozy for the kooky, to replace their banality with the bizarre.  And perhaps nowhere is this avant-garde ambition more on display than on Christina Aguilera’s first single in six years, “Accelerate.”

Commencing quite suddenly with a barrage of distorted, maniacal speech, all traditions seem ever-faded, the stun and shock of dissonance already heavily endowed.  Such perplexity is only further amplified by a riotous rattle building with great, unsettling tension before collapsing altogether into a series of sinister-cool snaps, slaps, and claps.  It is then – under a slinky, scuzzy structure of steadying stability – when we are first introduced to the elusive Christina, her unspeakably colossal vocals awash in a haze of lo-fi intoxication.  Though often a virtuoso of warmth and mirth, the remoteness and distance channeled within is a surprisingly punkish welcome, effortlessly evoking the kind of miserable, enchanted chill one encounters in any low-budget after-hours across the globe.  There seems in abundance a massive hunger, an electric prowess, a potent sense of brutalized decadence that one greedily wishes to embark and partake upon.  And as the soulful supergiant emphatically declares her pleasures over a neon-burnt synth, the environs indeed grow seedier and, in turn, more fantastical.  It is then as if a torrid, maddening striptease, a glorious call-to-arms for the vulgar and the shameless, which accompanied by the brazen boisterousness of Ty Dolla $ign, feels almost endearing, damn-near romantic.

Such loyalty to provocation is not only accentuated on the track’s visual counterpart, yet completely in line with Christina’s own mythology.  It was almost 20 years ago that the former teen starlet exchanged her bubblegum opulence for world-weary sleaze, embracing her creative and carnal freedoms with the kind of daring commandeering usually reserved for military campaigns.  Through a seemingly endless string of rebellious red-carpet appearances and vital video clips, her one-woman crusade felt incredibly brash and admirable, unraveling the gloss and sheen behind the Pop machine in real-time and introducing an unbelievable glimpse into the possibilities of 21st century feminism.  On the surface, the cheap, grotesque imagery of “Accelerate” may not seem to hold much weight against previous painterly endeavors.  However, there is something quite striking about a Pop legend smothered in oils, liquids, and glitter for the sake of herself, of delighting in her own madness and thrill for her own gaze.  By lacking the yearning, voluptuous exploitation usually associated with dance clips, what may have appeared a desperate plea for attention comes off as remarkably surreal and self-indulgent, as if sprung from the mind of a millennial Dadaist.

In truth, any pop star can create the consummate club banger.  However, very few would take that sensual, bewitching structure of pulsating ebullience and reconstruct it into something far more anxious and perhaps terrifying.  By keenly ignoring the glacial majesty of European dance to wallow in the boorish throbs of hip hop and the seductive beauty of bedroom R&B – exemplified best by 2 Chains’ mesmeric, middle-eight rap ensconced by immense 808s and breathtaking background coos – Christina Aguilera finds herself on the periphery, once again proving her aspiration to abandon all anticipation.  While most of her contemporaries preferred to play it rather safe, the masterful vocalist has always followed her own path of discovery, even if it may at times have worked against her favor.  Yet, on the hyper-modern, darkly outré “Accelerate,” all elements strike with explosive vigor and debauchery, revealing a fearless, fuckless artist deeply entranced and magnetized by her bizarre universe.  Descending into a collage of synths, melisma, and then total ambience, the final moments then feel as if a startling revelation – as if she is too turnt and transformed to speak, as if she has reached a point of such exultation that her mind ceases to react.  It is an awesome, exhilarating exit, leaving the mind free and open, knowing that there is so much more to explore.

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Spinning Into The Unknown: Ariana Grande’s Psychedelic Gospel

There is mastery in the void.  That desperate, shallow emptiness where the mind has drifted elsewhere entirely, where one ceases to comprehend and clarify what is happening around them.  Where we are liberated from concerns, regrets, faults, and fears.  Where we are free.  Oftentimes, we find ourselves wanting to know all, to feel all, to experience all, and, in turn, become all too privy to life’s inescapable malice and darkness.  Yet, under a spell – under an influence – we share an exquisite grasp of innocence and pleasure, wading through spark and joy without conceiving any possible alternative, aware only of the bounty of bliss laid before us.  In truth, that willingness to completely lose control appears remarkable, sinister, and even terrifying; however, within a sphere of confusion and derangement, that refusal of responsibility becomes sacred and, quite truly, necessary.

Such spiritual enchantment pervades Ariana Grande’s delicious ode to diva opulence, “No Tears Left to Cry.”  Commencing with a frosted, haunting wave of uncertainty, one feels placed within a candle-infested cathedral, confronting deities and immoralities.  There is even an immaculate fragility about Ariana’s soothing opening cries that seems to confirm the sheer possibility of encroaching doom.  However, as the tortured troubadour confesses that she, in fact, has “no more tears left to cry,” a marvelous radiance shines upon her and erases all assumptions, freakishly drifting into a collision of hypnotic, overlapped vocals before settling into a spectacular jaunt that encompasses the track’s entirety.  For Ariana, there is an immense futility in taking heed to any kind of hatred or disgust, any form of evil or degradation.  She desires to solely inhabit the gentle, cuddly, brilliant ever-present, where the spirits are high, the vibes are good, and the love is real.  And though such declarations can often appear commonplace, rosy, and even quaint, there is an absolute transcendence pouring from every crevice that negates all potential banalities.

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It is precisely that spellbinding surge of psychedelia and hallucination that gives the track its romantic depth.  Channeling the kind of trance-driven ebullience that ferociously erupted with bold sincerity and sentiment at the dawn of the century, one seamlessly takes on those startling, euphoric effects of encountering the dizzying magic in meeting someone new.  It mimics a decorative high, a gospel resurrection, that wondrous breakthrough of letting the once-dead heart beat again.  Though Ariana has previously delivered quite a few delectable oddballs such as the jazz-hop Technicolor of “Problem” and the swirling duality of “Knew Better/Forever Boy,” never has she appeared more attune with the avant-garde, never has she allowed herself to be spun so surreally into the unknown.  Within this galactic, operatic soundscape, Ariana bridges the gap between the world of yesteryear and the world of tomorrow, aligning centuries of technical excellence with a mega-watt, supercharged future.  It is as if one is attending an arena-show on Europa, as if the spacecraft doors of perception have been flung open.

Over the past five years, anyone remotely aware of Ariana’s existence knew her smooth, soulful harmonies had the makings of a world-class diva.  And upon “No Tears Left to Cry,” that commitment to reaching such levels of prowess and expertise seems evermore paramount.  Though she remains incredibly controlled and dignified, there is a palatable, palpable undoing and melancholy rushing from within that ultimately signifies Ariana’s innate musical grasp of time and place.  Along with her effortless, keen flourishes of modern jargon, that ability to imbue a sliver of sorrow against urgent epiphanies is quite extraordinary and has consistently set her apart from her contemporaries.  Here, she proves that even when hurdling through the strange astonishment of outer space, she is still capable of giving a performance that –  even if stripped of the delirious pounding of drum and bass – gleams with passion and truth and revelation.  Quite dearly, it is a comforting, sumptuous, near-radical dispatch: embracing emptiness with absolute and utter aplomb.  But, once horror and dread desire permanent invitations to our mind’s abode, it is a direction one must certainly drift.

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