Tuesday, February 10, 2009

2 "proud mary"s

going to youtube and watching tina turner sing "proud mary" in the 1970s is amazing. she uses her face, body and voice to achieve a level of drama that is reminiscent of Japanese No theatre. her introduction is as good as the song itself: she grimaces as she speaks, saying many people like songs sung "easy," but since she only knows how to sing "rough," she will start out easy and get rougher. her raspy voice and contorting mouth, and the slow rhythm starting up in the background, absolutely suck in the viewer and build up anticipation. she pauses before saying the words "rough" and "easy," creating a comic effect, enunciating them with such vibrancy and force the words take on mythical dimensions. the tension in watching the intro and start of the song is in feeling that she is straining just to hold herself back. and when she lets herself go, it is just wild. at breaks in the singing, she and the backup singers whip their long hair forward and backward ferociously.

now watch beyonce, channeling turner, singing "proud mary" for an elite audience including george and laura bush. it is delightful watching her imitate turner, who is sitting next to the president. there are two shocks for me in watching this performance: one is the shock of how much Black music has penetrated and indeed become the cultural mainstream. could anyone imagine Nixon or Ford sitting in the audience watching Turner gyrate and howl? would Turner have felt comfortable doing so? the social roughness of Black music's roots -- a roughness still evident in Turner's own life, even in her raspy voice -- was much of that music's unmatched stylistic power.

this point leads to my second shock: that in moving into the mainstream, even this roughest of rough performances by the bad bad Tina Turner could become a smooth product. when Black music moves from Tina Turner to Beyonce, it gains an immense perfection: Beyonce is a dream to watch and hear, beautiful, disciplined, vocal and bodily movements in perfect motion. but that perfect production, reflecting social mainstreaming, is also the song's loss. Beyonce mimics Turner's delightful introduction to the song but does not fully delve into it, inhabit it. watching Turner rasp and grimace and grin, one feels how much she herself enjoys the performance, how fully she is absorbed into it and is it. Beyonce, on the other hand, is merely gesturing at something done long ago. technically proficient, calculated, she does not erupt like Turner. there is little soul.

i wonder: is it possible for a socially marginal art with the eruptive, intense power of Black music to become the mainstream without losing that very power?

our Youtube adventure started with watching a BBC production called "southern soul" on VH-1. sara was immediately entranced, at Otis Redding's and Aretha Franklin's performances. i myself could hardly believe that in all my years i had never been educated on this rich period in american culture. i had heard of Redding but knew nothing about him. now BBC and Youtube are schooling me -- should i be sad that the schools i attended failed so miserably? or happy that BBC and Youtube succeeded? better late than never.

the second part of the BBC program covered the 80s and 90s. the beginning is so evocative of the 80s paradox: the camera lingers on sunlit Bronx project towers, while we hear Whitney Houston's mellifluous voice singing. the brutality of the economic system, seen in that landscape bathed in wintry sunlight, matched with popular culture's sweet vacuousness.

and there is something deeply sad about watching Mary Blige being interviewed -- at how desperately she has worked to be "pretty," ironing out her unruly nose and becoming perfect. somehow, for all her mainstream acceptance, she will continue to appear tragic to me in a way that tina turner does not, as rough as turner's life was. i am not sure why.

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