By Daniel Garrett
Executive Producers: Robyn Rihanna Fenty and Antonio Reid
Island/Def Jam Music Group, 2010
Diana Ross, The Definitive Collection
Hip-O Records/Universal Music, 2006
Generations are born, grow up and older and demand attention, whether or not they have earned it; and generations—creative, known, mature—grow old and are neglected, whether or not they deserve it. Yet, it is usually interesting, if not illuminating, to hear new sounds, something I began to contemplate once more when considering the work of Robyn Rihanna Fenty, whose popular work seems to draw from different genres—hip-hop, rock, dance, and Caribbean music—to create a sound that is, at once, personal and impersonal, familiar and fresh. It is impossible now to turn on a radio and not hear one of her songs, or to open an entertainment magazine and not see her name or photograph. She is a pretty girl who wants to be provocative as well as popular; and that explains the first song (“S & M”) on her album Loud, in which she says—yes, says rather than sings—“Sex in the air, I don’t care. I love the smell of it,” and “Sticks and stones may break my bones but whips and chains excite me.” We have been here before, with Madonna and Janet Jackson as tour guides. Being shocking is not the same as being significant, but that is a lesson that, oh, never mind. Rihanna, who has many collaborators, duets with rapper Drake in ‘What’s My Name?” in which he makes suggestive comments about what her lips can do, and she states, “Not everybody knows how to work my body.” Has everybody had an opportunity? Is her body an object to be managed, manipulated? The alienated language seems male to me, rather than female, but such distinctions may be too fine for what remains of our contemporary common culture. (Rihanna’s songs are attributed to a bunch of writers.) Who cares as long as the song “What’s My Name?” sticks to the list of bestselling Top Ten songs? Even Rihanna—in the Caribbean accent she can pick up and put down at will—sings, “People gonna talk whether you’re doing bad or good” (in “Cheers,” more a soundscape than a song). The kiss-off song “Fading” has not been sent to the singles market yet, as far as I know, but “Only Girl (in the World)” has, receiving attention. I may be bored by the enthusiastically vulgar expressions of sexuality, but there are a few songs that suggest the beginning of a genuinely interesting sensibility; and I wish I knew how much of that is calculation, and how much instinct: “California King Bed” is a rock-style ballad, and “Complicated” has a dance beat, and both are about expecting intimacy and joy but finding distance and loneliness. In the latter Rihanna declares that she’s going to stick around a little longer to make sure her lover really likes sleeping alone. Of course, with popular music it is possible for work to be both calculating and satisfying, especially if calculation denotes expert conception and construction; and I remember a time when this was done much, much better. I doubt I am the only one; after all, I do recall reading a comment of Antonio Reid, the producer of Mariah Carey and Rihanna, that he thinks of Diana Ross when he is in a recording studio.
American Girl and Lady, A Citizen of the World: The charm, intelligence, sensitivity, and sensuality of Diana Ross, an embodiment of first something girlishly modern then respectable and sophisticated, were new images in the annals of popular African-American iconography. One did not hear her voice and think of cotton fields or tenements, of social despair or historical tragedy; rather one heard her voice and thought of youthful energy and fun, of desire and love, of ambition and social mobility. “I have to live, and I want to give,” and “I’ve got to show the world all I want to be, and all my abilities” Diana Ross sings in the song “I’m Coming Out,” which has the affirmative simplicity of a children’s song and the resilience of a communal anthem. It is a song of freedom and pride. The song, written by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, made explicit something already perceptible; and decades after it was recorded, released, and became popular, it is as vibrant as ever. The unique quality of a performer or art form can be obscure, then known and celebrated, and once too familiar it is neglected, before changes in taste give it a new distinction and value. “I’m Coming Out” is the first song on the anthology The Definitive Collection, a gathering of some of Diana Ross’s wonderful songs, originally recorded for and distributed by the legendary Motown Records, and RCA. Festive drumbeats herald the easy confidence and sensuality of Ross’s arrival in the song, with an energy that makes joy and a good and successful life possible; and the jazzily marching trombone solo, and full and splintered beats, contribute to a creative atmosphere. In “Love Hangover” is a slow, sultry pacing of music and a voice to match, before the beats speed up and turn “Love Hangover” into a seductive dance song, a song in which Ross sounds intoxicated by a sweet love hangover that leads to her improvised use of voice—low and high, rough and sweet. About separation, loneliness, and speculation, the composition “Missing You,” an expression of grief composed by Lionel Richie for Diana Ross, allows Ross to demonstrate a pure voice and a grasp of drama both theatrical and true; and it achieves a classicism—beautiful singing amid a fine arrangement of a thoughtful song—exemplified by her best work. The Definitive Collection is an argument for the excellence Diana Ross achieved, and the values of heart and mind inherent in that excellence.
There was, and is, often something mythic about Diana Ross’s songs; and the song “Mirror, Mirror,” in its presentation of frustrated promise mixes fairy tale, Hollywood romance, and literary fable with thrashing, twanging guitar, heavy drumming, and Ross’s worried voice, a voice worried into wildness: “I thought you said you had the answer to it all. You never told me I was gonna take a fall,” she sings to her mirror. Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray would recognize her dilemma, as might Billy Wilder’s Norma Desmond: “I watch my picture getting older, but I remain the same, trapped in this mirror forever.” Jazz horns are played against a rock sound, in an orchestrated tumult. Ross assumes a melancholy authority—infused with reverence, regret, anger, and desire—in “Touch Me in the Morning,” written by Ron Miller with Michael Masser. One of the fascinating things about the song “Touch Me in the Morning” is its minor element of bitterness. “Wasn’t it me who said nothing good’s gonna last forever?” and “we’ve seen how love can grow, now we’ll see how it dies,” Ross sings, in one of her best, and most memorable, performances. Near the song’s end, Ross sings counterpoint to her own voice, romance checked by realism.
Diana Ross’s voice is calm and crisp in “Upside Down,” a song with an insistent, rich beat, about an erotic tangle, and the topsy-turvy aspect of relating to a cheating man you desire: “You always play the field. I’m crazy to think you’re all mine.” An even more direct eroticism is prevalent in “Muscles,” in which chorus, finger-snapping, and percussion turn a personal wish for male beauty into a collective demand. Michael Jackson wrote and produced the song, and it carried something of the ethos of the time, in which gyms offered exercise and society and their membership and publicity increased. In a whispery voice, Ross describes her preference for muscles above age or personality, her voice rising as she sings “I want muscles all over his body.” (Jackson echoes, “Just make him beautiful.”) I think Ross’s voice is too low in the mix, but that may make the song even more effective as a social rather than personal statement. Diana Ross went back to basics with her commitment to record a song she had grown up hearing, liking, and singing, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” which questions nature and romance, and, in Ross’s production, contains the combined musical aesthetics of different decades (the chorus of the 1950s, the ringing percussion and horns of the 1960s, and the simultaneous sincere and slick quality of the 1980s). Diana Ross’s voice is dark, sincere, and warm in “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” a song advising compassion; a career-long theme song.
A shade of Billie Holiday, but only a shade, not an imitation, can be heard in Diana Ross’s interpretation of the song “Good Morning Heartache,” one of the songs she sang in the film Lady Sings the Blues, for which she was nominated for one of the film industry’s academy awards. What is impressive is Ross’s dynamic control of expression, phrasing, and tone, creating a believable complex sense of sad experience, of lasting pain. It is an interpretation of pain, rather than an expression of it. A man leaves town with some of his girlfriend’s loaned money, and romantic expectation, disappointment, and continuing faith form the subject of “Last Time I Saw Him,” a light country-blues song, featuring Ross in sweet, pure voice: “If there was nothing wrong, he would return right on that bus,” she sings, determined to get on a bus herself and find him. Will he return; or, will she find him? The next song is “My Mistake (Was to Love You),” a duet with Marvin Gaye, whose voice—confident and sad, tough and vulnerable—is in contrast to Ross’s more singular tone. However Ross’s tone is that of a sadly regretful realism, sounding sure; and, while Gaye’s tone is that of both a lover and a hustler, it is Ross’s tone that inspires trust. Diana Ross’s voice is often thought of as high, but she has been most successful in her middle range, and her voice is almost too high at certain points in the ballad of self-assertion “It’s My Turn,” a composition by Michael Masser and Carole Bayer Sager. However, Ross moves through the lyrics with flexible thoughtfulness and sensitivity; and it is a song with the weight of drama. “Ain’t no use in holding on when nothing stays the same,” she sings. The most problematic lyric for me has been “I’ll let it rain ’cause the rain ain’t going to hurt me.” (I’ll “let” it rain? What could the narrator to do to stop it? Is it just an awkward symbolic assertion?) The song “It’s My Turn”—with “I’m in the World,” “I’m Coming Out,” and “I Am Me—was one of the songs in which independence and individuality became overt in Diana Ross’s work, the equivalence of both existentialism and feminism for a popular music star.
The great Greta Garbo did not write, direct, or costume her own films but she was a singular actress, glamorous and deep. Throughout the divergent styles of decades of musical work is the unique presence of Diana Ross: a sensitive and sensuous spirit, a fine intelligence, a glamorous aspect; as singular in music as Garbo was in film. The early Marvin Gaye version of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” had been a sweet but disposable ditty, but as reworked and produced for Diana Ross by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, it became one of the great modern anthems of romance, with a blend of spoken word and expressive singing, great orchestration, and choral support. In Ashford and Simpson’s discotheque-filling song “The Boss,” presumption is corrected, and a lesson learned, as Ross sings: “Love had to show me one thing…love taught me who was, who was, the boss,” although she had “thought I could turn emotion on and off,” and her wild, high-voiced singing at the song’s end is still exciting. The dream of an island romance in “Swept Away,” written by Daryl Hall and Sara Allen, makes possible one of Ross’s best dance songs—with fast heavy and light beats, and a guitar interlude that calls to mind the rock-disco of Giorgio Moroder. “Do you like the things that life is showing you?” is a rather plain question—it lacks poetry—but its timeless relevance is one of the things that makes touching the theme from the movie Mahogany, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?”—and the more experience one has, the more the question makes the song touching. The duet song “Endless Love” recreates first love and its promise of lasting love, and while Lionel Richie’s grave voice can dominate the orchestral swells, it is Diana Ross’s passionate singing that gives the song its transcendence. Her singing is much calmer, very matter-of-fact, in the soft jazz setting of “What a Difference a Day Makes,” and it is the celebratory send-off “Remember Me” that gives the anthology TheDefinitiveCollection by Diana Ross an appropriate conclusion: “Remember me as a big balloon, and a carnival that ended too soon…Remember me as a good thing.”
Most of the time, Rihanna’s voice is as absent of the echo of collective history as is the voice of Diana Ross: and that means that she is free in the present, free to create or discover herself; and that kind of freedom can lead to meaning or its absence. In the more interesting songs on Loud, such as “California King Bed” and “Complicated,” Rihanna is able to suggest imagination and conscience, but it is not clear to what extent these things are important to her. She combines elements of rock, dance, and the Caribbean, a little of this, a little of that, a way of outrunning the labels of critics and music fans. We sometimes accuse of singers of being unable to sing if they refuse to sing what we want, but they find ways of demonstrating their abilities. Rihanna begins to wail in “What’s My Name?,” a song I have no affinity for, but hearing her I am forced to realize that she is focusing on attitudes beyond my interest and deploying her talents when and where she chooses. In “Cheers,” the description of social (party) scenes substitute for private experience, as in much of today’s music, and the refrain “I’ll drink to that,” brings to mind Sondheim’s “Ladies Who Lunch,” though it may be too soon to see a “Lush Life” in Rihanna’s present life or future. Listening to “Fading” and “Only Girl” makes it clear why Rihanna has been welcomed by radio. I hear no debt to rhythm-and-blues or soul music. I realize that Rihanna is a popular music goddess, not the first or last; and a goddess takes whatever form she wants, and goes where she wants to go—but goddesses sometimes have rivals, and are sometimes bested (and can be most dangerous then). Rihanna uses a lovely high voice in the carnivalesque “Man Down,” which might be about murder or metaphor, and in that song her separate Caribbean intonations add social texture. There may be real intimacy in “Skin,” and her version of “Love the Way You Lie,” in which her singing is more prominent than Eminem’s rap, is more moving than the one that is more famous. I am surprised that what she is doing is not more controversial, and I am not referring to her supposed sexual transgression, but to her blurring of musical genres: it may be that her beauty and charm are enthralling and her music so likable to the young that she is perceived as popular but not important, not threatening. When her power is felt, she may face more opposition. Whatever, I am now curious about what she will do in the long future.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.