Monthly Archives: June 2018

Different as It Ever Was: Kidjo’s “Light”


On their 1980 album Remain in Light, Talking Heads thought and acted global. Over the course of their previous three albums, they had made the transition from art-school weirdos to acclaimed rock band. Now, as darkness dawned in Reagan’s America, they wanted to do something truly historical. They thought big, expansive, the foundation of humanity. They thought Africa.

On Remain in Light, an album on the Library of Congress registry, the rock quartet gathered musicians and sounds. Inspired by Afrobeat artists, specifically Fela Kuti, they played with polyrhythms, long jams, horns, backup singers. Most critics and listeners loved it. But even that many years ago, some denounced the white Americans for cultural appropriation. This is what makes Angelique Kidjo’s reinterpretation, or reappropriation if you will, of this seminal album so interesting.

Kidjo is from Benin, West Africa. As a young singer recording her first album in the early 1980s, she enjoyed considerable less cultural freedom than Talking Heads. In fact, in ‘83, she fled the country’s military-controlled government for Paris, not wanting to be pressed into civic service (a story remarkably similar to Celia Cruz’s flight from Havana to the U.S.). In the decades since, she has become a global pop star, famous for her powerful voice, Afrocentric anthems, and irrepressible dance moves. A few weeks ago, she staged a concert-cum-revival at the Theater at the Ace Hotel, mostly playing all the songs from Remain in Light, but also leading the audience — and Talking Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison — in a conga line around the venue for some of her own classic hits.

I love the original Remain in Light; it lived on my turntable when I was in college. But Kidjo makes the songs her own, digging into their juju and finding new resonance in David Byrne’s famed lyrics of alienation — “this is not my beautiful house,” the colonized female sings the colonizer male’s words. Vivien Goldman says Kidjo “triumphantly re-claimed the album for her continent” in her essay on the musician for Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, the anthology I edited (hitting stores October 9). As you can see from the video above, when Kidjo sings “Born Under Punches,” it’s not a metaphor.

The show was great, phenomenal. But the one thing I missed from the original version were the backing vocals. The interplay between the awkward Byrne in his Tom Wolfe-esque white suit and the grooving singers (Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry) was one of the elements that made the live shows captured by Jonathan Demme in the film Stop Making Sense both sweet and transcendent, hilarious and delirious. Fortunately the backing vocals are more prominent on Kidjo’s album version, which drops June 8. But also, the singer brings front and center what the Heads placed 20 feet from stardom, as the saying goes: #BlackGirlMagic

I hear from reliable sources (my brother and St. Vincent) that David Byrne’s current tour is also incredible, which I don’t doubt. I watched Stop Making Sense for the first time in years last weekend; it’s an important document of a band in transition. (Though you do have to wonder what everyone was on that allowed them to perform at that speed and intensity — ah, the ’80s.) Check out the mixture of aerobics and modern dance in “Life During Wartime” from Stop Making Sense.

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Liz Phair’s Rebel Yell

You would never have known from last night’s bold-as-love performance at the Masonic Lodge in the Hollywood Forever cemetery that Liz Phair has a history of crippling stage fright. Maybe it was the army of ghosts that the artist said had her back (“don’t touch my ass!” she scolded one), or maybe it was the quarter-century of power she found in the old songs she had dusted off for the show, but the exile from Guyville played for about 80 minutes without falter or stammer. She wasn’t alone up there; a younger musician whom she never introduced but referred to once as “Connor” accompanied her on electric guitar and vocals. But sonically, his role seemed to be primarily one of moral support. About halfway through the show, Phair had had enough of his trying to lead each song with a countoff. Reminding him he was playing with “a rebel,” she plunged into the next song without the human metronome. Empowered by the small audience’s enraptured support and the refound determination of her old songs, Phair played with a confidence and ease that evaded her when her first album, Exile in Guyville, whose songs she mostly played last night, made her an overnight indie star 25 years ago.

If you’ve listened to the recently released box set of that album and the previous tapes she recorded as Girly-Sound, you know how well that material has held up over time. That was even more evident at the show. The lodge was full of, well, women (and men) like me: well into middle age (my friend sat over a vent because she was having hot flashes), nodding our heads to songs as we relived how Phair was one of the first artists to express the gendered power imbalances of both intimate relationships and professional relationships in so-called alternative music communities. As she told me when I interviewed her back in April for The Guardian: “I was tired of being the girlfriend of the guy in the band, I was tired of hearing that my music tastes suck. This was not ‘alternative’; this was just underproduced.”

This was Phair’s first show since the release of Girly-Sound to Guyville. You’ll be hard-pressed to find tickets to the first leg of shows, but she has added more dates in the Fall. For you Angelenos, she’ll be at the Theater at the Ace September 21. Sure, this was a nostalgia trip for many of us, but I think her songs would resonate with young women today; Phair called it “Fuck and Run,” today they call it “hook-up culture.” As she told Allison Wolfe, for Wolfe’s essay on her in Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, the book I edited (out October 9): . “Male rock and roll singers have forever talked about sex graphically and gotten it on the radio. As a woman, I wanted to take that back.”

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