January 3, 2011

Act 2, Scene 5

Music references in my art world is a index toward one's literacy, and it can be a tricky subject if you don't signal connoisseurship straight off the bat. I am certainly not literate in this regard, and I deflect stigma by delving into the micro fan worlds of my pals, asking for more information about what they are exploring, learning as much as I can along the way but knowing all the while that I am constitutionally incapable of sounding the depths that my friends have been long accustomed to. Much credit has to be assigned to this kind of fan scholarship, though. It is a positive reflex action of an art world that is cognizant that popular history often overlooks true talent and real history must be mined for the totality of aesthetic truth left behind by crude mill of fashion and market forces. Witness recuperative projects such as How to Draw a Bunny or the many exhibitions hosted by Mara McCarthy's gallery, The Box. Important work.

So when I mentioned to a friend recently that Teena Marie died, the name dropped a blank. I pulled up the video above with little effect, the music was too mainstream for him, emblematic as it was of elevator music and FM radio "Quiet Storm" pablum that is far too odious for refined taste to consider seriously. But, I protested, Teena Marie is the exact sort of artist that we celebrate: a singer of the first rank, a songwriter of few peers, a master of several instruments, a true talent eclipsed by her mentor Rick James, she struggled to escape the strictures of representation by her label and escaped victoriously, you can see in this video shot only months before her untimely death that she was the real thing despite the entropy of middle age, she commanded the stage effortlessly. Whatever I can write here will pale to the best testimonial I have ever seen in this video tribute by Lenny Kravitz:

There is something more that I like about her songwriting, it has to do with transitions and the juxtaposition of theme and tone.

In Casanova Brown, you can see it as she shifts the mood in the middle of the song:

standing room only, the concerts so loud
everyone's there for the party
the hush turns to a shout
everyone's got a piece
of the pie
of you and I
but nobody knows when the lights go down
that the tears fall harder than the whole dam crowd
The song has chapters and chapters to it. One moment, she is crying to herself, consoling and denying and confirming the reality of an impossible love and the next she is at a party, hiding her feelings as best she can. I love shifts like that. I think of Cole Porter's Night and Day, where the song is introduced by a series of similes. Here is Fred Astaire's later version sung with much more sensitivity than the original soundtrack for the 1932 musical play Gay Divorce:

(And while we here, check out Sinatra's Vegas cabaret version, where even though he had dispensed with the intro, you can see how the guy could mesmerize with his blue eyes, despite the limitations of black and white film.)

I wish I could understand the Wikipedia entry on the song regarding song and harmonic structure. In Teena Marie's Casanova Brown video above, there are several shifts major and minor and the video is a shame in that it chops off the song a few fingers from the end. I've lead off with it here to show how powerful an artist she was in person. You'll have to poke around YouTube or download your own complete version to see what I mean about the way she ended the song. There is something about shifts in compositional structure, where the juxtaposition of dissimilar elements can enhance an overall project, that rivets my attention every time.

Posted by Dennis at January 3, 2011 12:40 PM

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