MILEY CYRUS AT THE CROSSROADS, WHERE SHE’S HARDLY ALONE (Memory Lane: 2009, 2006 and Yesterday)

I remember hearing this on the radio exactly once when it came out and thinking: “Jesus, she’s got a chance to be Brenda Lee.”

I wasn’t thinking about record sales (by Billboard‘s count, Lee was the highest ¬†charting and bestselling female vocalist of the 1960s). Once Hannah Montana broke, there was never any question about Cyrus selling records. The new model of fame generates it’s own momentum more reliably than even the previous quite reliable models.

Which meant record sales were a matter of course.

I was thinking, instead, that she could be the next in the straight, firm line that had, sticking only to the dead center, stretched from Jackie DeShannon to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow and, moving just a little outside the center, included nearly every important female rock or country singer for four decades running and produced literally hundreds of great records.

It’s a great, undervalued tradition and when I heard “Ready, Set, Don’t Go” riding around in my car in 2009, I had assumed it was dying out.

That it might be rescued by Hannah Montana brought a smile.

After that brief moment of hope, though, Miley started making “adult” records that were, of course, no better than the records all the other adults make these days. She also started selling a lot of them, pro forma, and I basically lost interest on the basis of my single, unyielding criteria: You don’t make great records, I don’t care about your shtick.

So, frankly, until this week, I assumed Miley had abandoned her talent in favor of the proper Show Biz model for the twenty-first century, as defined by John Lydon and perfected by Madonna and Donald Trump.

Make all your safe moves look like “risks.”

Or, as Hannah Montana would have it…

Understandable enough. I don’t begrudge anybody their success and there’s a reason why the easy road is easy and the tough road is tough.

But then Sheila O’Malley posted this a few days ago…

…and complicated my own easy, comfortable¬†analysis.

I’m not sure about the reigning “let ’em do what they want, haters-gonna-hate” aesthetic either as a social model in general or a usual exception for celebrities who get to ignore the rules anyway. I don’t find the line between what I owe myself and what I owe the world to be quite so stark and I’m a little suspicious of those who do.

And, based on the YouTube surfing I did after I watched Sheila’s video link, I’m not sure Miley Cyrus is all that clear about it either.

The main problem I’ve had with her “in your face” act is that, on her, it has always felt forced and faked, by which I mean even more forced and faked than the usual forced fakery (most recently exemplified by Beyonce’s Super Bowl appearance, where the politics were faked right along with the idea that she can dance any better than oh, I don’t know, Miley Cyrus and produced the usual predictably fake outrage and seriously unfaked legion of yawns).

While it felt like that with David Bowie and Madonna sometimes, too, they were genius record-makers, in charge of every facet of their careers and their personas. And if, say, John Lydon couldn’t say the former, he could at least pretend to the latter long enough and well enough to make it stick as a kind of perverse integrity.

All these years later, it feels like Miley Cyrus, hiding back there somewhere behind the butch haircut and the hilariously (or, depending on your view, pathetically) bad twerking, is still trying to have the best of both worlds. That, for all the attempts to conform, there’s still some part of her that doesn’t quite fit and yearns to breathe free.

I suspect that part is called a singer.

Ten years after Britney Spears came to the same crossroads, she’s a footnote. If Cyrus, a much bigger talent, doesn’t want to be left beside the same highway, she’ll have to make up her mind soon.

I wonder if the choice she makes will say more about her or about us.

 

MURDER BALLAD MONDAY (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #52)

Okay, Murder Ballad Monday probably won’t become its own regular category…though with the world living down to expectations in such spectacular fashion lately, I’m not ruling it out.

Anyway, on this particular Monday, I’ve had Dwight Yoakum’s 2002 box set Reprise Please Baby: The Warner Bros. Years on in the background most of the day and….Good Lord.

I’ve have it a while and I’ve listened to it once or twice, but somehow most of what I didn’t already know from the radio got by me. I think I must have let my disappointment at its not including “South of Cincinnati” (my favorite not-so-famous Dwight track and the kind of thing box sets are for dammit!) color my judgment. Because this is one monumental set, right down to a revelatory duet-cover of Sonny and Cher’s “Baby Don’t Go” with Sheryl Crow and a supremely laconic version of Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” to speak of only the most far-fetched examples.

And in all of that, nothing was quite so unsettling or enlightening as “Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room,” which I’ve heard at least a dozen times over the years and I swear is so much like his aching love songs I never even realized he killed the girl before.

That’s my kind of country-style murder. Very Calvinist. If the girl didn’t want to die, she shouldn’t have done him that way.

Happy Monday:

Don’t get me wrong, though. I still miss this:

 

LINDA RONSTADT…ECLECTIC WEIRDO (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #47)

I’ve always thought the biggest mistake of Linda Ronstadt’s career (whether hers or her record company’s I can only guess) was not releasing “Roll Um Easy” as the first single from the next album after Heart Like a Wheel had transformed her from a huge talent to a huge star. It would have inoculated her against the criticism that she was merely mining oldies as a surefire commercial formula. It would have laid the “she can’t rock” nonsense to rest because the single that was released, a perfectly fine version of ‘Heat Wave” which plenty of people were predisposed to hate for any number of not very good reasons, would have stayed an album track and nobody would have cared about her admission that she had trouble getting a handle on it even if they had bothered to ask.

And, while there’s no way to know these things of course, I’m pretty sure Ronstadt singing “eloquent profanity just rolls right off my tongue” over that arrangement in ’75 would have been a sure-fire number one. (“Heat Wave” did just fine, reaching #5, but, for all the album sales and steady selling singles, she never quite recaptured the chart momentum “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved” had given her.)

I’ll always think it was a mistake, then.

But lately I’ve been revising my opinion on whether it was her worst.

Because, in purely aesthetic terms, not releasing a live album has it beat all hollow.

Though she could sometimes be a touch stiff and uncomfortable in the spotlight and wasn’t always visually compelling, she was generally looser and freer vocally on stage than in the studio.

Sometimes she even took chances.

I was taken enough with her live concert from Los Angeles in 1975 to make it the first thing I’ve ever downloaded for repeat audio consumption (there’s no video available and it makes it easier to hear just how good she could be).

But there’s nothing in that concert, or any of several others available (all excellent to one degree or another) that matches what she did here, making Dolly Parton and Warren Zevon stronger for each other’s company. It’s a measure of her vision and, believe it or not, not something just anybody could pull off, then or now, even if they thought of it:

And anybody who thinks Ronstadt wasn’t some sort of genius should check out her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, available en toto on YouTube, where, with her own voice stilled by Parkinson’s, a dream lineup of Carrie Underwood, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow and Stevie Nicks were repeatedly overwhelmed by arrangements she once made sound as easy as breathing.

Somebody, please do a live box….or at very least a live single, on this woman. (And if she’s the one resisting, due to her well known obsessive perfectionism, somebody please talk her into it!)

POP IN THE SHADOWS (Segue of the Day: 5/1/15)

Heavy listening this week and a lot catching up and careening around. Various avenues leading to various places (some of which I do intend to write about): early Conway Twitty, Swamp Dogg, more Fleetwood Mac, the 5 Royales, War, Hot Rocks, Al Green, Sheryl Crow, Roots of Funk, Staple Singers.

The usual mix, more or less, just a little...intensified.

And in that busy week nothing stuck quite as deeo as a couple of gorgeously off-hand little items from unexpected places, the first from the Bear Family’s new release celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Herman’s Hermits (which literally got here day before yesterday)…

HERMANSHERMITS

and the second from 2007’s box set of the Stiff label, imaginatively titled The Big Stiff Box Set, which has been sitting around my house for at least a year, waiting on my not-very-persistent New Wave mood to strike…

STIFF1

I picked up the Hermits’ set in lieu of some generic greatest hits package or waiting until I could afford the complete Mickie Most sessions, which I wasn’t even sure I needed. I’m still not sure I need it, but the 66-track Bear Family treatment certainly has its deep pleasures, including a new shine on the few tracks I already considered essential (“I’m Into Something Good,” “A Must to Avoid,” “No Milk Today”) and a new level of intimacy made available by the gods of re-mastering that allowed me to hear qualities I’d missed in say, “End of the World,” and “This Door Swings Both Ways” that strengthened my abiding sense that Peter Noone was really a girl-group singer in disguise and gave me an entirely new sneaking suspicion that he might have been a first-rate one.

Better than I expected, in other words, and I can also say the same for the Stiff box, which yielded Devo’s re-imagination of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Dave Stewart’s re-imagination of “It’s My Party” among a slew of fine originals (plus re-visits with old friends like Rachel Sweet and Tracey Ullman…if I’m relying a tad heavily on “re-” it’s probably because listening to a lot of New Wave all at once always re-reminds me of its limitations as well as its joys).

And, emerging from the haze, two keepers that sound like lost soul-mates speaking to each other across a pop generation.

Neither was a hit.

In a better world, both would have been a whole lot bigger than “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” or “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.”.

Here’s the once-famous Hermits, from 1966:

And the never-famous Jane Aire and the Belvederes, from 1978:

For now…another reminder that rock and roll is bottomless.