Friday, December 13, 2013

Master Class: Beyoncé’s “Visual Album”

It was the mic drop heard ‘round the world.

Beyoncé’s sudden, stunning announcement that she had not only recorded an entire new album while on tour, but released it at the exact moment it was announced, in the absence of any advance publicity and nary a clue of its existence, made the news rounds late last night and into this morning. As expected, social media exploded in mass hysteria. For music lovers, this was the equivalent of an atomic bomb, consuming and destroying everything in its path. Imagine if the Beatles went on the news unannounced in 1968, carted in a crate of LPs, said “this is Abbey Road. It’s available as of right now. Enjoy,” then left.

Today, the “normal” process of promoting music these days is for artists to Tweet the existence of a single, whether or not it was already sent to radio or made available. Publicists work overtime to ensure maximal exposure for their client. In the late twentieth century, we waited with bated breath for the radio to play a newly-announced song, or hope and pray that a bootleg would make the rounds and we’d pass them around on cassettes or white-label CDs. I remember the promotion behind Madonna’s radio premiere of “You Must Love Me” from the then-to-be-released Evita, which was met with a collective shrug from the record-buying public. People waited for the product from the superstar. It was expected that we would accord it respect. Nowadays, artists are at the mercy of the public, each trying to command attention over the sound and fury until such time that everyone was talking over one another, and the audience stops caring. Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga did this more than once this year, and both attracted negative publicity (in Justin’s case, it didn’t hurt his album sales, but in Gaga’s situation it was decidedly more detrimental). The artists didn’t let their music speak.

Beyoncé’s masterstroke is that she pushed the entire work directly into the marketplace. Why just Tweet that there’s a song available in advance of an album and making videos in a rush after the singles were pushed out? Here are some ways in which the new album has radically subverted the rules of the game, and reflects how we consume and discuss music. This is not an evaluation of the disc’s artistic merits (lack thereof), but an exploration of how we regard this particular artist in the celebrity ecosystem.

Go directly to the marketplace. There’s this terrific article in The Guardian explaining that Bey went directly to the audience. It’s the equivalent of her showing up in the middle of a crowded mall, setting up a kiosk, and quietly waiting for people to appear and buy out her stock. There was no advance publicity, no built-up anticipation. One could argue that Beyoncé’s been on tour for most of the year and that would be publicity enough, but she never betrayed the fact that this album was being made at that time, let alone released. We would have expected an album at some point in the future, but traditionally it would not be in the middle of the tour, and certainly not while she’s still promoting material from her last album two years ago. It’s even more rare that she chose to do so during the all-important fourth quarter of the year, when people buy music in greater numbers than the rest of the year due to the holiday rush.

Silence = respect. Consider the multitude of artists who contributed to this album: Frank Ocean, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, Timbaland, Sia (the most unexpected collaborator of all) and her mercurial husband Jay-Z. She’s stacked the deck with tremendous talent and not a single one of them have breathed a word. It’s a testament to how she is so respected that she commands such respect. Virtually every other artist has had a track “leaked” (intentionally or not), but nothing was said here to anyone. Perhaps they didn’t even know, and assumed it would be released a year from now, after the tour? This release was so sudden and unexpected that for once, Wikipedia didn’t have any information on the album – not even a page – within an hour of the disc’s release. Given how so many celebrities plead for “privacy” and yet are photographed leaving their yoga class, here is a request truly met and accorded respect.

Silence is louder than Tweets. While the likes of Madonna, Gaga and Miley madly try to get people to pay attention by espousing on everything and nothing at once, we hear relatively little from Beyoncé. Even her self-directed (and deceptively “intimate”) documentary Life is But a Dream conveys little substance of her private life. Contrast this with Mariah Carey, who has been on TV almost every day this week broadcasting from her well-appointed Manhattan home. What has Bey said about this? Absolutely nothing, other than a Facebook post, and singular pictures on Instagram and her Tumblr. She’s busy with her tour, you see, and tending to motherhood. For someone everyone talks about, it’s curious that Beyoncé herself says so little, yet what she did with the stealth album drop said a lot.

The single does not command the marketplace. It’s no secret that there’s not much money in purchasing music. The public buys the singles they want at a fraction of the entire album cost. Single purchases far outweigh album sales, and committing to downloading a full disc is a greater commitment from the public. (The real money is in tours, anyway.) By dropping the album with no advance publicity and not identifying one particular song as “the lead single”, the sudden onslaught of new music is too much for her public. We can’t just buy the one single and wait two months for her to announce the next one: there is no single. This way, we have no choice but to listen to the entire work and determine for ourselves what the standout tracks – should there be any – truly are. Consider that Lady Gaga’s “Applause” was met with derision and relatively mixed reviews in advance of her latest work. Despite being a hit single, her latest disc artPOP is selling respectable but hardly spectacular numbers, by superstar standards. For the press surrounding her Vegas show, the once-indomitable Britney Spears’s new platter has anemic sales. It can be argued that the lead single hurt the album by tainting its image prior to release. Beyoncé went through a similar situation when “Run the World (Girls)” was met with a relatively soft commercial reception prior to the release of her 2011 album 4. By dropping the entire disc at once, she neatly sidesteps this negative publicity, and compels us to return to old patterns of buying entire albums.

Image control. Beyoncé is not the first artist to release an entire video album accompanying each track (including non-singles) with a clip. That would be Annie Lennox, who did so for 1992’s landmark Diva album (for which she won the Grammy for Best Long-Form Music Video). However, the release of the disc as a concept “visual album” with bonus videos, feeds into our fascination with Mrs. Carter. To keep herself in the conversation by saying so little, we then look into her Tumblr and Instagram to determine if any of the images in the videos were silently released in her sites. Did she leave clues? Was she hiding a secret in plain sight, and nobody caught on? And therein continues the virtuous cycle: Bey’s killer instinct and business sense helps her understand when people are weary of celebrity, and when to back off. The combination of the album and video compilation maximal release is both manifestation of ego and maximal output all at once, forcing the viewer and listener to judge the work on its own. Not for nothing is she supreme in imagecontrol.

Confirmation of iconic status. Beyoncé is also not the first artist this year to do the stealth album drop. That would be David Bowie, whose The Next Day turned out to be one of the year’s very best discs. The difference is that Bowie preceded the disc by shipping a single to radio, then released the album a few months later, with little to no other publicity accompanying it. It still hewed more closely to the "traditional" publicity pattern than what Bey did. Only an artist with a captive audience would dare try it. There are a few who may pull off this trick, and Bey proved she is one of them. What's breathtaking about her strategy, more so than Bowie's, is that she dropped in the midst of her tour, a time that is so exhaustive and all-consuming for her professionally that one would not imagine she would have the time or energy to create an entire new work that some artists take an entire year off to produce. True to form, the album crashed on iTunes several times due to the overwhelming sudden demand.

The music itself. Is it any good? Is it bad? Is it great, or both? At this point it becomes a moot point. All the emotion surrounding anticipated new music and its actual release have been truncated and amalgamated overnight into the span of just a few short hours. The stealth drop of the album has neatly sidestepped all of the discussion by presenting the music as-is, compelling fans to buy it and completely avoiding the tide of potentially negative publicity (and yes, it’s pretty damn good). The videos clearly have ambition, scope, scale and budget to carry out her vision. It is a celebration of the artist and her life, confessional and dramatic. Perhaps this is the wave of the future, pop music as grand opera?

In any event, I’ll be spending copious amounts of time studying this work, deciphering clues and gaining insight into at once the most public and yet enigmatic musical artist working today.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Cinematically Inclined: “The Great Gatsby”

Who knew an old high school English class chestnut would be one of the main cultural events of the summer movie season?

It’s been over a decade since Baz Luhrmann made his signature film and masterpiece, 2001’s experimental, infuriating, over-the-top Moulin Rouge!, an MTV-influenced musical pastiche whose anachronistic spiritual twin was the Bollywood musical. In a similar vein, Luhrmann’s more straight-forward dramatization of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby draws the source novel into the long-held discussion on New York high society. Whereas we start the discussion with Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and then posit Gatsby as both the beginning and end of turn-of-the-century Manhattan social circles, Luhrmann’s film seems more apt to reference Gossip Girl by way of its themes of belonging, its dissection of old money and new money, and acceptable forms of desire.

The story is familiar and part of the canon of great American literature. Aspiring stockbroker Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) arrives in New York to make his fortune in the summer of 1922, when the alcohol was free-flowing, the flapper girls were cooing siren-like calls to the lovelorn, and many were awash in unprecedented wealth. The 1920s were the first half of the twentieth century’s counterpart to the 1980s. Nick visits his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her brutish old-money husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) on Long Island, and becomes not so much friends with them as thrown together in common circumstances. New York was in thrall to the wild, weekend-long parties of Nick’s neighbor, the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). These gatherings at his sprawling, Citizen Kane-like estate were so lavish that no one was ever invited, but anyone and everyone simply showed up in droves to bathe in the overindulgence and drink the champagne that flowed like water. (It is no coincidence that The Great Gatsby is also opening this year’s Cannes Film Festival.) It turns out that Jay and Daisy were once in love, and he’s returned from obscurity with obscene wealth and the single-minded goal to rekindle their romance.

While most critics have laid waste to Luhrmann’s aesthetic choices, with some of the worst reviews likening this film to a sorority or frat house party, I posit that Luhrmann’s aesthetic is exactly right for this story. If you wanted a slavish recreation of the era and to render it delicately, see the somnambulistic 1974 film version that had Robert Redford and Mia Farrow wandering about languidly in delicate drawing rooms like they were in the world’s most tedious, but well-dressed zombie flick. Gatsby was always a garish, larger-than-life character, and his ambitions and passions were as wide as the boundless Midwestern sky from which he emerged. The film’s extravagant set pieces vividly soar with the giddy contact high from his parties, the promise of youth, beauty and wealth on grandiose display. Oscar-winning designer Catherine Martin (Mrs. Baz Luhrmann) has outdone herself with the period production and costume designs. One wants to buy everything on screen. Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby brings to mind the extravagance of large-scale opera like the Bregenz Festival. Like in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, nothing draws derision and criticism quite like audacity and sheer nerve. The film has strong promotional tie-ins with such luxury brands as Moet & Chandon, Tiffany & Co., and Brooks Brothers, exploring and showcasing the film’s exploration of conspicuous consumption while at the same time teasing audiences with the promise of happiness through the acquisition of those goods. Is this a comment on consumerist culture in a time of global economic crisis?

The cast, as one would expect, steps up to these iconic characters with vigor and the requisite energy. DiCaprio makes a vibrant, arrogant Gatsby and brings out the truth behind the façade: not Gatsby’s humble beginning, but his social awkwardness that makes him try just a little too hard. The challenge of playing Daisy has always been alluring given that she’s such a thinly-written character. Daisy has always been more a promise and not a fully-realized woman, a sign, signifier and symbol of desire, fantasy and unfulfilled dreams. Mulligan’s vibrancy makes her more than just a projection of fantasy made flesh in Gatsby’s mind. Joel Edgerton’s raw anger is what we need for the jealous, puerile Tom Buchanan, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Armie Hammer would have made the part his signature role. Australian newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is delicious as Jordan, the famed golfer and teller of tall tales. While Jordan’s penchant for duplicity is almost completely gone from the film, Debicki makes us want to see more of her. The key role and film’s best performance belongs to Tobey Maguire, whose Nick Carraway is the narrative counterpart to Ewan McGregor’s Christian in Moulin Rouge!.

And what of the film’s celebrated and already notorious soundtrack? Working again with Craig Pearce and this time with the emperor of the music world, Jay-Z (with his empress dowager Beyoncé in tow), the film’s sound is more contemporary than Moulin Rouge!. With the latter, the re-mixing and re-working of recognizable pop songs mixed in with Bollywood dance beats, house and Broadway made the soundtrack almost defy every era, and inadvertently rendering it timeless. My concern is if the same could be said for The Great Gatsby’s soundtrack. Nevertheless, it is itself full of gems and curiosities. While Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” and Florence + the Machine’s “Over the Love” soar on the proverbial wings of love, the Andre 3000 / Mrs. Z collaboration on Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” feels a shade extraneous. It works well as a call-and-answer, but it can’t improve on the original’s emotional bloodletting. Ironically enough, Emeli Sandé’s version of Mrs. Carter’s “Crazy in Love” as a sped-up flapper jazz suite is better than the latter’s own contribution. Still, it is entirely appropriate for the most ostentatiously wealthy of today’s musical royalty to contribute to the sounds of arguably the most over-the-top film of the year. (If anyone else tops Luhrmann in cinematic excess in 2013 he may be out of a job.)

The film is not itself perfect. There is a coda tacked on where Nick is narrating the events from a rehabilitation facility that is an exercise in directorial vanity. The lovely and talented Isla Fisher is underused as Tom’s mistress Myrtle Wilson, there are too many uses of the same matte drawing to signify the commute between Long Island and Manhattan, and some of the more intimate gatherings run on too long, making some want to leave the party early. But then again, the film’s aesthetic is that more is more, so it is fitting even when the films needs to be more heavily edited. 

If nothing else, The Great Gatsby is on all levels a visual essay on the fluid nature of dreams, and an inadvertent criticism of conspicuous consumption, even as it is itself seems complicit in its encouragement. (If anyone needs me, I’ll be at Brooks Brothers.)