PICK THE PUNK (Segue of the Day: 1/30/17)

Heard on the radio yesterday, in this order…pick the punk. Don’t worry, there’s a right answer, but it’s easy (hint: it’s not the one who was an actual punk):

“Borderline” came out in 1984, a couple of years before the others, the last really great year for American radio singles. It was the fifth single off her first album and wasn’t her first big hit (“Holiday,” fantastic, had gone Top 20, and “Lucky Star,” desultory, had gone Top 5). But, accompanied by her first striking video, it was her first cultural “moment.”**

It was only hearing it in this context that I realized how clean a break it was. I always thought of Madonna as an assimilator, a natural hit machine, gathering up previous strands into something fresh-but-still-recognizable in the manner of  Tom Petty or Prince.

And in most respects–the cheesy, airless dance track, the hummable melody, the Supremes’ style beg in the storyline–“Borderline” is just that.

But the vocal has an off-hand quality that, in 1984, qualified it as a new direction. People had put that flat, affectless tone on the charts before, but usually as a novelty, not as an expression of passion. And nobody had made both an American hit (that thing that was always evading punks, which was why Belinda Carlisle stopped being one, hooked up with an ace rhythm section–that other thing punks kept not getting–and left her five thousand imitators, including the hundred or so who have been “critically acclaimed” somewhere along the way, writhing in the dust) and a great record out of it.

The affectlessness was affected, of course. If “Holiday” didn’t prove Madonna could sing, then her version of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” from her second album offered proof in spades. (I kept waiting for something that proved she could dance–that never happened.) “Borderline” now sounds like an attempt to capture the spirit Diana Ross breathed into “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which meant it was Madonna’s first successful attempt at bringing the girl group ethos up to date.

But without the old power the Motown/Red Bird/Philles machinery provided for Ross or Ronnie Spector or Mary Weiss–with just an early eighties’ standard issue dance track carrying the bottom and the middle–even Madonna’s “Love Don’t Live Here” voice would have sounded fake by comparison. Too professional, too not-a-teenager-anymore, too Reagan-era ready, too much of what the rest of her second album would sound like. Not so much a grab for the charts (she already had hits) as for cultural power.

Too much of that too soon, and the record might have still ridden high by the numbers–sort of like “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” which made Number One and signaled that Belinda Carlisle was about to disappear. Madonna’s real power was that she could sit in the middle of the slickest piece of crap on earth and still be true to her dual selves.

That was why she she was able to redirect John Lydon’s nihilistic “No future for me/No future for you” into the hyper-nihilistic, truly revolutionary, “Future? Who cares about the future?” even as her lyrics were mostly clever updates of pop platitudes. Affected or not, that voice was the first pure expression of a vision a pop star could live up to without either killing or exposing herself.

For a while anyway.

Long enough to become iconic.

Hearing “Borderline” in the middle of a standard Jack-style eighties’ run on the radio in this new environment made me realize that was the record where she set the edge she was still trying to stay on when she talked about blowing up the White House last week in the slickest possible “of course we all know I both mean and don’t mean every word I say….who cares about the future?” way, only to be outdone by Ashley Judd going all Weatherman on her and sticking both Madonna and “Madonna” safely and securely in the consumable past.

That’s the problem with even fake nihilism. Sooner or later, somebody–some sad Sid Vicious type–takes it seriously and pushes you to a place neither of your dual selves really wants to go.

The only way Madonna can ever get back in the game now–ever be more than a celebrity or a cash register again–is to start making great records again.

I’d love to hear it.

I won’t hold my breath.

**(I still recall a quote by Belinda Carlisle’s Go-Go’s’ drummer, Gina Schock, from a magazine I stupidly threw out somewhere along the way because I thought the quote was in another magazine I saved. Asked about Madonna, she said: “Well, she’s probably undermining everything we’re trying to do. But every time ‘Borderline’ comes on the radio, I turn up the volume.”)

HOW BITTER-SWEET IT IS (Occasional Sports Moment #14)

Okay, life’s been a little disrupted the last twenty-four hours by my alma mater’s participation in the last game of the traditional college football era–an era which began in 1869, with Princeton and Rutgers, and ended last night–with FSU and Auburn playing in what was otherwise known as the 2013 season’s BCS National Championship Game (played, of course, in 2014).

Beginning next season, the college game will officially transition to the era of NFL-Lite and follow down the grim path of every other major American team sport by instituting a playoff system to replace the season-long pursuit of the “mythical” national championship with something presumably more profitable. (Yes, an actual title game of some sort has been in place since 1992, but next year’s expansion of the formula will represent the true point of no return.)

In this final game, we found ourselves playing the Southeastern Champion Auburn Tigers, who were trying to extend their Conference’s seven game winning streak in BCS title games (and unprecedented reign of utter dominance).

As one of those happy-to-be-a-southerner types who is particularly happy to have nothing to do with the SEC, I’ll just say that–even though I would have much preferred our victory to come against some Evil Empire school like Florida or Alabama, rather than our fellow Little Brother school from the Plains, it was still sweet to be SEC champions again, just like in the good old days of regularly whipping Pat Dye (1987, 1988, 1989) and Little Stevie.Spurrier (1993, 1994, 1996 and 2000…though to be fair, minus our top two running backs, we lost a rematch after the 1996 season…and we also lost to the SEC champs in 1991, 1995, 1998 and 2002, each of the last two with our third-string quarterback at the helm, not that I’m bitter or anything.)

For the record, FSU started playing football in the late forties (the only program started after WWII which has ever won an NCAA major college football national championship of any kind–and, believe me, in major college football the phrase “of any kind” covers a lot of ground).

It took a decade–and the threat of legislative action–to “persuade” the University of Florida (which, as of today, has the same number of National Titles that we do [3], though I’ll note that we got there first [1993]) to play us.

It took quite a few more years to get them to play a game in Tallahassee, instituting a pattern of SEC paternalism that, in some respects, persists to this day.

FSU also petitioned the SEC for membership throughout the sixties and seventies and were regularly turned down. That was the main factor in FSU choosing the ACC when the SEC finally came calling in the early nineties. (Many stories have circulated since. That’s the real one and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)

I’m not even sure what my favorite Can’t-Live-With-Em-And-Can’t-Get-Rid-Of-Em SEC anecdote is.

Gosh, just so many memories:

The last time I was in an SEC stadium was in 1991 at LSU, where “former” Klansman and presidential candidate David Duke was campaigning in the stands. I’ve always  been a little bit proud that our section was the only one that booed him…and it’s possible I sang “Hold That Tiger” a little louder than I otherwise might have as a result when we were coming down the escalator from the nosebleed section after we had beaten the denizens of Death Valley yet again

Then there was rolling down the halls of the Louisiana Superdome after the 1989 Sugar Bowl (after beating Auburn as it happened) and finding out what great acoustics the place had while we were chanting “Who Dat Gonna Beat Dem Seminoles, Who Dat?”

Or listening to current ESPN mouthpiece, Tennessee-born Paul Finebaum respond to an Alabama fan (who, on Finebaum’s daily radio show back in 2008, accused him of being a carpetbagger), by reminding said fan that the KKK was founded in Tennessee! I’m guessing Paul made sure that tape was burned when he went national but he and Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron’s mom–not to mention David Duke–certainly must have things to say to each other at the secret meetings. (Hey, 1991, 2008, 2014. Doesn’t really matter. Most of the South really has moved on, but in the Southeastern Conference, the dream of 1860 is always alive.)

Really, though, I think my favorite, purely sports-related, moment was the statement of former LSU athletic director Joe Dean (who mostly seemed like a nice man and is recently deceased, but still the coals are worth raking), after his school cancelled a contract for a game in Tallahassee in response to FSU joining the ACC in 1992.

What he said, in essence was:

“If FSU wanted to play us, they could have joined our conference!”

Never mind that the SEC has never officially acknowledged pursuing FSU and never mind that Dean was reliably identified (by several media sources) as one of the point men in that non-pursuit-pursuit.

No, the real story there was the moxy involved.

It took some to make that statement considering we had to, after the usual fashion, make seven trips to Baton Rouge to get one return game (it was the seventh, incidentally, that I referenced above) and further considering that we won six of the seven in their place and squeaked by them 42-3 the one time they came to ours.

Like I said.

So many memories.

In any case, it was a sweet way for the whole thing to end…with a bunch of our fans doing the war chant in Pasadena in between rounds of “A-C-C” and A.J. McCarron’s mom tweeting insults at our quarterback (this after every beat writer in the world spent the last month assuring us that no Alabama fan would ever root for Auburn, proving once again that the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade members of the national media who have kept up the steady drumbeat for a college playoff (always in the name of competitive integrity, of course) and have now seen their patient Overlords (seeking, as always, to increase their already obscene profit margins) rewarded, know nothing whatsoever about the tribal nature of college football.)

It’s that tribal ferocity and irrationality which, for better or worse, will gradually dissipate in the years ahead, as state, conference and regional rivalries lose their significance as anything more than cash cows and petty squabbles for seeding positions.

Still, SEC or no SEC, college football was a great game.

So I’m genuinely sorry that it, like all good things, had to end.

But if it did, well….Best that it end like this:

and with me having to spend the day with this running through my head: