Will the real Christina Aguilera please stand up?

June 13, 2010 at 8:15 pm (hear)

Christina Aguilera has always been my favorite pop star. From the moment “Genie in a Bottle” hit the airwaves in 1999, I was hooked. She was in the pages of my teen magazines, but unlike the other young blondes, she had a voice that soared. I saw her in concert in 7th grade, with Destiny’s Child opening. A friend once gave me her Christmas CD, and though now I can’t find it, I remember liking even that.

Aguilera has said that every album has been a 180 degree turn from the previous one, and her songs range from bubblegum pop to throwback jazz to pulsing club music. She reinvents herself yet again on Bionic, her electronica-influenced, split-personality new album, but what’s ultimately missing is humanity.

Despite her constantly changing image and sound, Aguilera’s songs are full of strong declarations about who she is: I am beautiful. I’m a prima donna. Thanks for making me a fighter. On the Bionic track “I Am,” co-written by Australian musician Sia, Aguilera sings:

“I am timid/ And I am oversensitive/
I am a lioness/
I am tired and defensive/
You take me in your arms/
And I fold into you/
I have insecurities/
You show me I am beautiful”

This song–pleading, twinkling and orchestral–is jarring next to the catchy but off-putting album closer, “Vanity”:

“I’m not cocky
I just love myself, bitch.
Mirror mirror on the wall
Who’s the fliest bitch of them all?
Never mind, I am
That bitch is so fucking pretty
Yeah I am”

Later in “I Am” come these lyrics:

“I am temperamental/
And I have imperfections/
And I am emotional/
I am unpredictable/
I am naked/
I am vulnerable”

Contrast that with the song “Desnúdate,” with these nuanced bilingual lyrics:

“Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (get naked)
Desnúdate (for me)”

Through Aguilera’s morphing styles, the connective tissue has been sex appeal. She has vamped her way through multiple incarnations: the teenaged teasing of “Genie in a Bottle,” the smoldering Latin sounds of her Spanish-language album, the drag queen make-up and corsetry of “Lady Marmalade,” Stripped’s sweaty, dirrty girl chaps, the retro-glam naughtiness of Back to Basics, and now Bionic’s robotic, sexed-up club girl with a penchant for leather and fetish gear.

But she has never been someone whose sex appeal seems effortless, who has that enviable quality of not trying too hard. (She has also been explicit about her message, that sexuality is empowering.) From the platinum hair to the tight clothing to the excessive make-up to the sexual moaning (ex: “Desnúdate’), you can see the work.

It is unfortunate for Aguilera that Lady Gaga arrived before Bionic, so outfits and come-ons that were previously attention-getting now read as desperate: At the recent MTV Movie Awards, she performed with a glowing, pulsing LED heart on her crotch. I want to shake her by the shoulders and say, “You are beautiful, no matter what gossip blogs say. So stop wearing shiny red hot pants over sparkly tights.” Or, as Tim Gunn would say, “I’m concerned about your taste level.”

Bionic marks Aguilera’s entry into electronica/dance music, with collaborators like Le Tigre and MIA, but she doesn’t yet seem comfortable with her new persona. The first single, “Not Myself Tonight,” with its NSFW bondage-sexy video, finds her declaring, “The old me’s gone, I feel brand new, and if you don’t like it: fuck you.” But the lack of authenticity—there’s plenty of auto-tune and synthesized beats—seems an odd stylistic choice, given that Aguilera’s strengths are her astonishing voice and the powerful emotions it can express, even through the oversinging. An Entertainment Weekly article about making Stripped talked with songwriter and producer Linda Perry about recording “Beautiful”:

“Perry ended up using Aguilera’s guide vocal — her rough first take — on the finished song. ‘She had a hard time accepting that as the final track. It’s not a perfect vocal — it’s very raw,’ says Perry… Still, Perry was able to convince Aguilera to forego perfection in favor of the track’s unvarnished emotion.”

That song maintains its hold: Glee recently used the empowerment anthem as a climax in the episode “Home.”

Aguilera’s 2006 album Back to Basics was a surprising twist from dirrty to Marilyn Monroe-glamorous, but it played to her strengths. Blues, soul, jazz, big band: they can be sexy and sultry, but also have playfulness and heart. It’s not on the album, but watch this video of Aguilera singing James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” at the 2007 Grammy Awards. I’ll wait.

She is feeling the music, throwing herself into it, shaking that microphone, down on her knees on the stage, going all the way for a piercing high note that, though it enters shrieking territory, makes you hold your breath. Patti Smith later told Rolling Stone that it was “one of the best performances that I’ve ever seen…I sat and watched it, and at the end, I just involuntarily leapt to my feet. It was amazing.”

If you’re talking competitive advantage, what can Aguilera do that Britney Spears, Ke$ha, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna and other pop tarts can’t? Sing. Really sing, with a voice that comes from deep inside her. So even though there are some fun dance tracks on Bionic that seem to lift a page from my other favorite platinum blonde, Gwen Stefani, it kills me to hear Aguilera talk-sing her way through songs like “Glam,” coo on the limp and frankly kind of gross “Sex for Breakfast,” or be auto-tuned into oblivion on the title track.

In middle school I read Whispers From the Grave, a great book that unfortunately appears to be out of print. It was set in 2070, and was about a girl who discovers that her embryo had been frozen, and she has a twin sister who was murdered in 1970. She has to use her psychokinetic powers (strengthened by a special visor contraption) to go back in time and prevent her sister’s death. One detail that has stuck with me is that, in the future, all the music had artificial, robotic “singers” with perfectly tuned voices. So when the character goes back in time and hears songs from the ’60s, she’s struck by the humanity in the singers—that they occasionally miss a note, that their voices crack, that they contain emotion.

With Bionic, Aguilera has made herself into futuristic sexbot, trading depth for dance beats, her voice for vanity. But if she’s open to inspirations and collaborators, I’d say forget Gaga and go for Janelle Monae. On her new album, The ArchAndroid, Monae adeptly blends a futuristic vision with funk, soul and electronic influences, and her idiosyncratic, singular personality shines through. I’d love to hear what those two women would create, and who–finally–Christina Aguilera would reveal herself to be.


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Forget Best Screenplay—Here are the Best F*!@ing Insults from In The Loop

February 26, 2010 at 11:36 am (hear, watch)

Warning: This will get lewd. But how can you talk about the dizzyingly funny and wildly vulgar political satire In the Loop, nominated for best adapted screenplay, without language that would make Howard Stern blush?

In the run-up to the March 7th Oscars, there has been much discussion about performances, direction, best picture chances, ex-husband-and-wife rivalries—and very little about screenplays. As the only adapted screenplay nominee that did not receive a Best Picture nomination as well, In the Loop has been overshadowed by films like Precious and Up in the Air, but it may be my favorite movie of the year, and is certainly the one that most delights in language.

Most of it is foul language, to be sure. But oh, what foul language! Insults are often dumb, easy and cheap—we’ll spew the first crude things that come to mind in the heat of anger or frustration. But four letter words and bro-speak like “douchebag” simply can’t express the wide range of ways in which a person can be contemptible, disappointing or idiotic. Hearing sublime wit and style applied to the art of the insult made me cackle with glee.

The act of insulting may be immature, but In the Loop brings grown-up flair to its “fuck-off”s. The insults (some too complex to be satisfying in out-of-context quotes) reveal an ear for rhythm, a stand-up’s mastery of the set-up and punchline, pop culture literacy, historical knowledge and, centrally, an understanding of political manipulations as fodder for screwball comedy. Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s director of communications and the source of most of the verbal abuse, deploys his sharp tongue with a shrink’s incisive knowledge of others’ vulnerabilities.

Given that this is a British movie, the musicality and formality of British English, not to mention its cultural history, provide multiple jokes. In talking to a staffer for low-level cabinet minister Simon Foster, who is upset because she was not informed of a media appearance that falls within her purview, Tucker explodes: “Within your ‘purview’? Where do you think you are, some fucking regency costume drama? This is a government department, not some fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!”

(For more Austen-bashing, admire Mark Twain’s verve: “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin bone.” This quote appears in last fall’s Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola, a compilation of famous authors’ fighting words that similarly celebrates impressive smackdowns.)

As with “jaunty little bonnet,” In the Loop revels in creative descriptions. When Tucker complains about a War Committee meeting with a very young State Department aide, he rants, “His briefing notes were written in alphabetti spaghetti. When I left, I nearly tripped up over his fucking umbilical cord.” And “lubricated horse cock” is only the tip of the iceberg of the film’s animal imagery: Tucker is called a “poodlefucker,” an aide smells like “a pissed seaside donkey,” a staffer in hot water is “lobsterising,” a State Department official is “an excitable, yapping she-dog” and an American staffer is warned: “You get sarcastic with me again and I will stuff so much cotton wool down your fucking throat it’ll come out your arse like the tail on a Playboy bunny.”

From start to finish, bonnet to arse, In the Loop is a linguistic masterwork. If you haven’t seen the movie, watch it now. And if you want to further admire the writers’ achievement, you can download the whole script.

So here’s hoping that the Oscar goes to Armando Iannucci, who also directed the film, and his three co-writers, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche. Just imagine the acceptance speech they’ll give.

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Why is the Lady Gaga/Beyonce song “Telephone” so bad?

February 12, 2010 at 12:43 pm (hear)

Don’t get me wrong—I think Lady Gaga and Beyoncé are two of the most talented pop stars out there. I sing along to “Paparaazi,” Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” might be my favorite mainstream hit ever, and I saw a great Destiny’s Child concert when I was in 7th grade. They are sexy and bold women, and their clothes alone make award shows worth watching. So why are their collaborations terrible?

The stars first paired up on the remix of “Video Phone,” which is the stupidest song on Beyoncé’s album and feels like it was written exclusively for a commercial. Next came “Telephone” (sensing a theme?) for Lady Gaga’s album The Fame Monster. Just before the Grammys they shot the video, which reportedly involves Beyoncé rescuing Gaga from jail and makes use of the yellow truck from Kill Bill (aka the pussy wagon). Both women have a flair for the dramatic, so I’m sure there will be plenty of bonkers clothing and vaguely threatening technophile imagery.

But as for the song itself, these are among the lyrics the divas sing in the compelling tale of a woman who wants a boy to stop calling her because she’s trying to get drunk in a club in peace (as transcribed by Directlyrics.com):


Stop telephonin’


I’m busy e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e

Stop telephonin’


Can call all you want but there’s no one home

And you’re not gonna reach my telephone.”

(Tao Lin, the author of Eeeee Eee Eeee, should get a royalty. Though, to be fair, many people prefer to write the near-poetry as “eh eh eh eh eh.”) Not that I should expect a ton of logic and intricate thought processes to happen in a pop song, but when faced with these lines from Beyoncé

“I shoulda left my phone at home

‘Cuz this is a disaster

Calling like a collector

Sorry, I can’t answer”

my reaction is “Turn off your damn phone!” People have become so attached to their devices that it doesn’t seem to even occur to the women to stop complaining and just hit the power button. Maybe there’s a deep metaphorical layer to the song—Gaga is clearly fond of imbuing her pop music with meaning derived from “performance art” and other high-brow buzzwords—but the song seems to revel in its triviality.

Coming from the powerful, feisty, creative duo, this song is an inane disappointment.For a cleverer phone-centric song, I’ll take Gwen Stefani’s “Breakin’ Up,” which uses bad cell phone reception as a metaphor for a failing relationship.

I will say, I would love to see the text messages these two phone-obsessed women send each other.

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Crazy Heart and a country playlist

February 8, 2010 at 11:07 pm (hear)

This past weekend I saw the movie Crazy Heart, about a down-and-out country singer who, despite being an alcoholic and having a penchant for leaving his belt buckles constantly undone, possesses a grizzled warmth that attracts both Maggie Gyllenhaal and the audience. Jeff Bridges is favored to win the Oscar for Best Actor, and “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)” is up for Best Song.

I’m woefully under-informed about classic country, and the much-mocked form (“What kind of music do you like?” “Oh, everything. Except country.”) got a playful ribbing in my home, where my mom would sometimes drawl her imitation of a country song: “I lost my wife, I lost my truck, and then I lost my dog.”

But that mix of hardship and humor is what gives country music its heart, and it turns out that some of my favorite musicians have a country twang. Here, then, is my country playlist:

1. The Dixie Chicks, “White Trash Wedding”

This song has a rapid-fire, bouncing fiddle melody, plus it cracks me up. The chorus:

“You can’t afford no ring
You can’t afford no ring
I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring”

2. Ryan Adams, “Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.”

Adams puts out too many albums to keep up with, but I loved 2007’s Easy Tiger. A taste of that country sadness:

“If I could I’d fold myself away like a card table
A concertina or a murphy bed, I would
But I wasn’t made that way, so you know instead
I’m open all night and the customers come to stay
And everyone tips but not enough to knock me over
And I’m so tired, I just worked two shifts.”

3. Wilco. Pick a song, any song. I love them so much I forget how alt-country they can be. But a few recommendations: “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” and “Forget the Flowers” from Being There, “Hummingbird” from A Ghost Is Born, and “Jesus, Etc.” from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

4. Kathleen Edwards, “In State” (in which she tells a failure of a boyfriend that she “know[s] where the cops hang out” and “maybe 20 years in state will change your mind”) and “Back to Me.” I’ve heard her newish album, Asking for Flowers, is really good, but don’t have it yet.

5. Julie Roberts (this woman really should have picked a stage name), “You Ain’t Down Home” and “No Way Out” (“Fell in love and there’s no way out, sometimes you just gotta laugh about it.”)

6. Rilo Kiley, “I Never”

I’m counting this as country because Jenny Lewis’ solo album was country-ish. I love the opening.

Also, pretty much the only radio-play song this year that I liked (ok, loved) was Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me.” So sue me.

Happy listening!

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Sing It: An Interview With Nanci Zoppi

February 6, 2010 at 8:50 pm (hear, watch)

If you haven’t heard Nanci Zoppi, you ain’t heard nothing yet. In the last year, the singer-actress has made waves in the Sacramento theater scene through performances with the New Helvetia Theatre Company, B Street Theater and weekly cabaret series Graham-a-Rama. With an elastically expressive face and a jaw that seems to come unhinged as she unleashes high notes, she brings equal parts comedic talent and yearning sadness to her role as Susan, the girlfriend of an aspiring musical theater composer, in Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…Boom! Presented by New Helvetia, the show runs through February 13. Nanci took some time between two shows on Saturday to chat about the musical, her new band and what makes her cry.

How did you get into singing and acting? Tell me about the first performance that you can remember. My dad’s a singer around town, Bobby Zoppi—he had the band Zoppi. So he taught me how to sing when I was two, when I started talking. I hummed before I knew words. And at six my first grade play was The Littlest Christmas Tree and they cast me as the littlest elf and I loved it. From that point on I threw myself into acting, and I went to theater school when I was 19.

Where did you study? I went to this place called Circle in the Square in New York. All my favorite actors like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Benicio del Toro and Felicity Huffman went there.

You’re currently starring in Tick, Tick…Boom! How would you describe the show? Jonathan Larson really wanted to bring real rock music to the stage. It’s still musical theater, but it does have a different edge to it and even if you don’t like musical theater you’ll still like this. The show resonates with a lot of people, with the question of “what am I going to do with my life?”

Had you been a Larson fan previously? I liked Rent, but I was never diehard. I’m more of a Sondheim person—Sunday in the Park with George is maybe my favorite musical of all time. I had heard Tick, Tick…BOOM! and I didn’t like the music at all. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to work with these people again [after starring in New Helvetia’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch last summer], and it’s been a great experience because I love the music now.

What changed? I think when you start to do your groundwork as an actor for your characters, you grow an attachment to them. That automatically makes the songs more personal. Plus [co-stars] Connor [Mickiewicz] and Tristan [Rumery] bring so much to the characters and sound so beautiful doing it. I don’t know if you’ve heard the cast recording of Tick, Tick…BOOM!, but Raúl Esparza is the star. Terrific actor. Has one of the most annoying voices on the planet. So I think that had something to do with it.

There are some clever songs in the show, like “Therapy,” plus one, “Green Green Dress,” that’s all about how hot you are in a green velvet dress. Do you have a favorite? My favorite song in the show I don’t sing. It’s the one Jon [the main character, who has a day job at a restaurant] sings at the end—it goes “I’m going to spend my time this way.” [The song is “Why,” in which Jon reaffirms his decision to devote himself to music and theater.] When he sings it I’m always offstage, and I cry every time at this certain part, when he says “Five o’clock, diner calls, I’m on my way.”

What makes it so affecting? I always knew what I wanted to do, from six years old, maybe younger. And then I hit 24, 25 and everything changed. Like, “I have no idea if I want to do this anymore.”

What made you doubt? Theater school was a lot of it. When you do six days, seven days a week from 8 a.m. until sometimes midnight and you’re trapped with 50 really needy, passionate, sometimes horrible people—I was so tired, I took two years off. I went through that, “do I give up? Is this something I really want to do?” Even if you’re super talented, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to succeed.

But you got back in the game, and people love your performances. On at least three occasions, the arts editors of the Sacramento News and Review have written that they’re “obsessed” with you. What do you think it is about your performance that leads to those strong reactions? If I knew that, I would try to mass produce it. I’m a vocal teacher as well, and the thing I tell all my students is, if I wanted to just hear a pretty voice I would listen to a CD. You have to make it personal so that people want to get out of bed, get dressed, get in the car, spend the gas money, buy a ticket and then at the end, be willing to do it all over. Leading up to high school, everything was really on a gut feeling, and feeling the audience’s energy, and when I went to theater school everything became very technical. I think I finally reached a place where I’ve been able to marry those two concepts.

A lot of people think of musical theater as over-the-top, jazz hands, all that. But do you also sing rock or pop music? When I was growing up I was training in opera and musical theater and contemporary stuff. I grew up listening to the Pixies. My favorite to sing though is folk music. I started a band with Graham Sobelman [the brains behind Graham-a-Rama] called Nanogram. I’d call it piano-based folk, and we’re currently trying to record an EP. The last year has been great because I’ve been able to just work doing theater and singing lessons. This is a new experience for me, and I hope to continue it as long as people want to come see me.

See Nanci perform:

  • Tick, Tick…BOOM! Through Feb. 13
  • It’s Only Life, a revue of the music of John Bucchino (presented by New Helvetia), March 1 at the Crest
  • As “Nanogram” at Graham-a-Rama, March 14

Watch: Nanci at Graham-a-Rama, performing “It Goes Like It Goes,” from the movie Norma Rae

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Elephants… Teeth Sinking Into Heart

September 28, 2008 at 11:45 pm (hear, watch)

Rachael Yamagata is one of my favorite musicians, if that status can be earned with a single album (2004’s Happenstance ), and I’ve been waiting ages for a follow-up. Now, Elephants… Teeth Sinking Into Heart (a two-disc CD) comes out on October 7!


Here is the video for her first single, “Elephants”. It seems like a bit of an odd choice to kick off the new album–it’s super mellow, and not really infectious. But it is pretty, and I’m jazzed to hear the other 14 tracks. 

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June 25, 2008 at 8:42 pm (hear)

So I’m totally late to the Jaymay party (I said to my sister, “Ooh, I heard about this new singer who is supposed to be really good” and she said, “Yeah, I’ve had that CD for a few months.”) but I listened to her CD Autumn Fallin’ four times in a row in the car today and it’s lovely. I think my favorite song is “Blue or Grey,” which you can see her performing just with her guitar here.

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Mamma Mia!

January 2, 2008 at 4:47 am (hear, watch)

I know that ABBA’s music, and the musical based on it, is totally cheesy, but I don’t care. I’ve seen the stage show twice, and I just found out that there’s a movie version coming out next summer! Here’s the trailer:

Now, I know Meryl Streep is basically the best actress of all time, but I really don’t see her as Donna (the mom). Donna is super feisty and tough, and I feel like Streep looks too delicate. I think part of the problem for me is that in the stage show she is a brunette, and the long blonde hair just throws me off.

As a side note, the guy playing Sophie’s fiance has great abs.

As another side note, the two guys from ABBA also wrote a terrific and under-appreciated musical called Chess that was a hit in London but bombed on Broadway in 1988. It’s about chess and the cold war, and has a song with this mouthful as the chorus:

It’s very sad to see
The ancient and distinguished game that used to be
A model of decorum and tranquility
Become like any other sport
A battleground for rival ideologies
To slug it out with glee.

So I can see why audiences might not be all gung-ho, but it has beautiful songs.

Ignore the extremely dated hair and costumes… (this is from London):

This is from the Broadway cast recording. There’s nothing to look at, but just listen:

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November 1, 2007 at 6:54 am (hear)

Last night I saw Regina Spektor at the Wiltern and she was amazing. I love her albums Begin to Hope and Maryann Meets the Gravediggers–she has one of the best voices I’ve ever heard, and a silly sense of humor. Here’s an excerpt from one of the songs she sang last night (“Music Box”):

But when I do the dishes
I run the water very, very, very hot
And then I fill the sink to the top with bubbles of soap
And then I set all the bottle caps I own afloat
And it’s the greatest voyage in the history of plastic

I was expecting her to have a band, but it was actually just her playing piano (and guitar–or at least one string of it–on a couple of songs). Even though a couple of the songs, like her biggest hit “Fidelity,” didn’t sound as good without other instruments, it was really striking to hear the songs stripped down: there’s no hiding when it’s just you and a piano. She also did a cool version of “Hotel Song” with the opening act, Only Son, beatboxing. Here’s a video of that song not from last night, but actually from a show in Sacramento earlier this year. It’s also cute because she messes up on the last chorus, and then jumps around sort of embarrassed.

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October 2, 2007 at 9:08 am (hear, watch)

In early celebration of seeing Metric in concert tomorrow (or actually today, since it’s 2 am now), here is the new video for lead singer Emily Haines’ song “Our Hell” off her 2006 solo album. Everything is a negative image–that creepy effect where skin glows white, teeth look black and noses, cheeks and fingers seem frostbitten–but the result is beautiful. I especially love how poured and splashed liquid looks like white-hot metal and people’s eyes take on a washed-out, Modigliani-type look.

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