The Return Of…

Gone quiet for 30 years as a group, ABBA is back with a new studio album. Are we still in a nostalgic mood? Is it true when they sing, “I’m not the same this time around”?

Avatars of ABBA perform in the video of the group’s newest single, I still have Faith in You. Screen grab: ABBA/YouTube

For the many youngsters who shop at Shein and those who endure the electro-cheese that’s mainly TikTok’s soundtrack, ABBA is likely a pop-culture relic. Disbanded since 1982, the year when Billboard’s number-one hit was Olivia Newton-John’s “raunchy” Physical, ABBA has largely existed on karaoke nights of men and women of a certain age and as the soundtrack of their own promo-vehicle ABBA: The Movie (1977), the stage musical Mama Mia (1999) and the movie of the same name (2008), followed by Mama Mia! Here We Go Again (2018). It’s unclear how frequently ABBA is played on Spotify (compared to Ed Sheeran?), but in their heyday, the Swedish quartet reportedly sold more than 380 million albums (what are those? Let’s leave that for another time). So massive ABBA was in terms of album sales for a quartet that only The Beatles (since we’re looking back, why not even further back?) sold more, at 600 million. E!Online reported that the four of them turned down USD1 billion in 2000 to reunite for 100 performances. So ABBA’s much-publicised reunion and comeback and an impending live show are a big deal. And they have not only announced a new album Voyage coming out in November, but also the release of two new songs at the same time in the past 24 hours. Are we on the cusp of another ABBA-mania, even when their fans are mostly those considered senior citizens?

I Still have Faith in You is the first among the two to be made available with an accompanying music video, which is a patchwork of old photos and footages, and an in-the-shadows preview of the gig to come. Written in 2018 for a TV show, but somehow not broadcasted or used, it’s now their comeback theme of sort. This is classic ABBA if classic ABBA is what rocks your boat. It is perhaps hard for fans to imagine them doing anything outside their range when they are making new music as septuagenarians. It’s not as if we can imagine ABBA as Kiss or, perhaps more accessibly, Blur. If Bee Gees can return, they too would be just Stayin’ Alive. Schmaltz was an ABBA signature, and they still sign that way. NME quoted Benny Andersson explaining why they won’t adopt current pop music trends: “We can’t, because I don’t understand the ingredients in the songs that work today, so it’s impossible to emulate.” Dripping with sentimentality (“It stands above the crazy things we did/It all comes down to love”), I Still have Faith in You is the quartet looking back, or unable to part with their dreamy young selves. The ballad builds slowly (another ABBA identifier) to emotion-tugging musical-theatre style arrangement (as if prepping for another Mama Mia film) that easily becomes guilty pleasure. But have we not already sung Thank You for the Music?

There is moderately more heft to the other released track, Don’t Shut Me Down. While I Still have Faith in You is written to bring a stadium to its feet (and it will!), this is arranged for a dance floor to the DJ’s mercy. Similarly announced in 2018, but did not materialise, this is a potential dance-charter and stayer. Again, the song opens slowly, but when “the lights are on/it’s time to go/it’s time at last to let him know” and the showy piano glissando strikes, you’re in familiar territory. Cue to grab your partner by the hand and hit the dance floor. Voulez vous? Only thing is, you’re back in what was called a discotheque. Don’t Shut Me Down is no Dancing Queen, but you may want to scream. When was the last time you danced to a song that encouraged you to sing along, let your hair down and your voice out? Yet, it is not quite the disco banger it could be. One sense restraint here, as if the band was asking, “do they still boogie?” Or leaving the others to do a worthy remix. But not too new. Almighty Records come to mind (full disclosure: we’re not huge fans of ABBA, but we’re partial to Abbacadabra)! In the present form, Don’t Shut Me Down does not pretend to be, like their creators, other than a blast from the past. Even with Internet-era language such as “I’ve been reloaded”, the baseline, the percussion, the xylophone(!)—they conspire to make Tetron bell-bottoms want to dance along.

At this age, the foursome—it is possible—was not having that much fun. We’re not saying they did not derive joy in writing and producing the songs, or singing them, but both tracks sound so serious that we almost forget that ABBA was very much associated with the campy or even the kinky (remember Two For The Price Of One from the last album, 1981’s The Visitor? Was it a more liberal era then?). At this age, the Super Troupers are not keen to perform in person. In announcing the ABBA Voyage concert (for 2022), described as “revolutionary”, we were told that Industrial, Light and Magic-designed digital “ABBA-tars” (think Gollum) would take their place. These are put together, according to the BBC, by “850 people (who) worked on recreating ABBA ‘in their prime’”. More remaining in the past while bringing ABBA to the AI-ready anything? As we hear mellower-sounding Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad stack-harmonise, “we have a story/and it survived” in I Still have Faith in You, we also hear the making of Mama Mia: Don’t Shut Me Down!

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Happy, Not Happy

Coping with fame or romantic relationships, as Billy Eilish croons, isn’t easy, but are we still enthralled by more confessions of the tough and the dark?

It’s retro-tinged, it’s melancholic, it’s tuneful, and it is destined to be a successful follow-up to 2019’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?—the album that worn Billie Eilish’s (and her brother Finneas O’Connell) five Grammies. It’s quite a feat for what Mr O’Connell called “home-made cookies”. The sophomore Happier than Ever, released two weeks ago, boasts more refined and rarefied song craft, and is, therefore, poised to repeat the feat in the next music award season. Ms Eilish creates music far more sophisticated than other recording artistes much older than her. She expresses emotions the average late-teen rarely emotes or so ardently. Her songs, woke and ever so anguish-filled, are not about musical trends; they are song-writing that tugs at heartstrings. On the cover of Happier than Ever, the newly blonde Billie Eilish is in tears.

Teen confessional-pop is, of course, (still) a thing. Singing about growing-up pains is the stuff of the rapid rise to stardom these days, and if you do it all with a smidgen of alt posturing, all the better. Ms Eilish packages herself vocally as an old soul. She offers not Meghan Trainor’s vibrant pop or Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour-ness, but they all share the need to express periods of their lives affected by heartbreak and whatever now—and then—ails young women embracing the adult world, including, in the case of Ms Eilish, her objections when watching porn. In Male Fantasy, a guitar-driven track that would actually appeal to guys, she recounts: “home alone, tryin’ not to eat/distract myself with pornography” and continues to point out the untruth of such performances since, as she believes, the actresses in them “would never be/That satisfied, it’s a male fantasy”.

On the whole, Happier than Ever encourages you to put your player (or streaming service) on loop. It is not manic; it’s nicely paced, and, in parts, it makes for the listening you’d keep for between you and the four walls of your bedroom. It’s ideal for listening alone, whether streamed through your smart speaker or via wireless earbuds. Our problem—if it’s right to call it that—with this album is Ms Eilish’s singing. Don’t get us wrong, she can sing. In fact, we like her voice: the clarity, the roundedness, the warmth, the not-girlish vocal styling. But it is how she used that voice that can sometimes annoy. In this album, Ms Eilish sounds as if she is singing to herself, as if testing a tune. The words won’t come out wholeheartedly, the phrasing too manipulated in the throat. She metronomes between amusing herself and seducing you. It is appreciable that she does not scream, she does not show off in unnecessary vocal gymnastics, but sometimes it is better not to let the singing get in the way of the song.

Many of her fans say her style is “intimate”. Since she sings almost entirely in the first person (except in GOLDWING), it is “natural” that she sounds as if she is in your attentive company. Happier than Ever is, therefore, ideal for solo listing, whether streamed through your smart speaker or via a pair of wireless earbuds. Perhaps it is with such intimacy that you’ll know she’s Getting Older (“I wish someone had told me I’d be doin’ this by myself”) and, in the talk-not-sing, Anne Clark-ish Not my Responsibility (“If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman/ If I shed the layers, I’m as slut“), that criticisms of her body bothers, if not hurt, her. Some songs augment her indie cred, including the stand out Your Power (“Will you only feel bad when they find out?”). There are a couple of tracks that beg to be remixed for the dancefloor or your bedroom, such as the excellent Oxytocin* (“I wanna do bad things to you… You know I need you for the oxytocin”)—how many young women use such a lovely word?!—and GOLDWING (“They’re gonna tell you what you wanna hear/Then they’re gonna disappear/Gonna claim you like a souvenir/Just to sell you in a year”). Pretty hardcore stuff from a fresh post-adolescent.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

*Oxytocin is a neuro-hormone that plays a part in the emotions we feel and the sensations in the body. It is also popularly known as the love hormone as it is released while we kiss and hug, and get heavy in sexual activity

Screen grab: Happier Than Ever/YouTube

Seungri Is Sentenced

The former member of Big Bang is found guilty by a military court for multiple crimes, including “prostitution mediation”

Once thought to be headed for immense success for his accessible pop music as a soloist, Seungri will be heading towards jail. In what has been described by Korean media as “sex and gambling scandal” that has riveted the nation, the verdict of the court case—he was tried in military court as he enlisted for compulsory military service in March last year after being indicted in January—was thought to be a foregone conclusion. K-pop industry watchers and the media did not think he was able to extricate himself from the explosive allegations. Earlier today, Seungri was sentenced to three years in jail (it is not known if he would be sent to a military lock-up) “on multiple charges, including prostitution mediation and overseas gambling”, according to the Yonhap News Agency. Prosecutors had sought a five-year prison term for the star. He was handed down a total of nine charges, which included “the operation of an unlicensed adult entertainment establishment and embezzlement”. Seungri denied the charges. With his arrest in 2019 and the accompanying allegations, the K-pop industry was sent into a reverberant state of shock.

Seungri, whose name in his passport reads Lee Seung-hyun, was called for questioning when Burning Sun, a high-end nightclub in Gangnam that was reported to be co-owned by him, was under investigation: Initially over the alleged assault of a male guest, but soon blew up to include criminal activities that was staggeringly wide-ranging, from prostitution (as well as the trafficking of the underaged) to the mistreatment of South Korean women (the use of ‘date drugs’) to spy-cams to drug trafficking to tax evasion, even police corruption (some law enforcers allegedly colluded with the club owners). It was considered one of the biggest probes of the entertainment industry at that time, and impacted individuals—the famous and the less so—across Seoul. When he decided to quit the entertainment business following charges of “sex bribery”, Seungri admitted on Instagram that he had caused “societal disturbance”.

One of the far-reaching allegations against Seungri was that he “procured” prostitutes for VIP individuals, identified as “investors” for his nightclub and attendant businesses. These men were believed to be from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and other countries. Curiously, even our little red dot was implicated when Seungri brought up a name, “Kimmy”, during a March 2019 interview with Chosun Ilbo, the oldest newspaper in South Korea. In a widely shared translation, Seungri was quoted saying, “In the Club Arena (another nocturnal venue linked to the star) case, it’s regarding a woman from Singapore called Kimmy. She’s the daughter of a famous soccer club owner. I’ve received a lot of help from her, so I just wanted to look out for her.” Looking out, according to Seungri, was arranging for a “female travel companion to shop with her while she was in Seoul”. The Straits Times, following the Chosun Ilbo interview, wrote: “While he did not identify who she was, speculation swirled that he was referring to socialite Kim Lim, whose billionaire father Peter Lim has a controlling stake in Spanish side Valencia.”

The talk that emerged bordered on the shocking and unseemly. Ms Lim, not a stranger to Seungri (there were social media posts of them together), was quick to act, posting on Instagram stories, three successive pages that refuted any suggestion that she was involved in the burgeoning scandal, 4,669 kilometres away. She insisted that she was at Club Arena with Singaporean friends, saying “we partied by ourselves and left after”. She was emphatic: “I’m not involved in any way whatsoever” and concluded with the warning: “Any media outlets which persist in reporting so will be hearing from my legal counsel”. Ms Lim’s outrage is understandable. Why would she, a seasoned shopper, need local shopping companion when she had company from home with her? And why should aspersions be cast on what was essentially a night out with friends?

Many Seungri fans were unable to accept the guilty verdict. On Twitter today, some of them claimed that there was “no evidence” to the purported wrongdoings, while others thought the allegations were “made up”. That Seungri could be embroiled in seedy sex crimes is still beyond the grasp of his followers. He is, among the Big Bang quartet (now a trio), the most relatable—despite his reportedly lavish lifestyle, he is not aloof; he is friendly; he is masculine; he does not dress weirdly; and he “does not come across as someone who would even have a beer with a pimp, let alone do the pimping”, as one disappointed SG fan said to us. Unfortunately, K-pop idols, like all pop idols, as the increasingly prevalent reminder goes, are humans too.

Illustration: Just So

A “Buffalo Boy” Passes

Obituary | Popular model of the ’80s and Madonna’s protégé, Nick Kamen was pop culture’s definitive pretty boy of that era

Nick Kamen: The career-making photo that made it to the January 1984 cover of The Face. Photo: Jamie Morgan/The Face

One of the most striking faces associated with UK fashion and pop music of the ’80s Nick Kamen has passed away, according to reports in the British media. Mr Kamen succumbed to bone marrow cancer at home in his flat in Notting Hill, West London. A family friend confirmed to the BBC that he died on Tuesday evening after a long battle with the illness. He was reportedly diagnosed four years ago, and had largely kept quiet about his ailment. Despite the fame of his younger days, Mr Kamen led a relatively low-key live in the past 10 years or so, almost entirely away from the spotlight. He was 59.

Nick Kamen started modelling in the early eighties, appearing on Vivienne Westwood’s runway shows, but he was a relative unknown until he was discovered by the legendary British stylist Ray Petri in late 1983. Born Ivor Neville Kamen in 1962 in the town Harlow of the county of Essex, a “working class” area in Southeast England, his good looks were attributed to his highly mixed ethnicity: Burmese, Irish, Dutch, and English. The Asian connection might have accounted for his “cafe latte skin”, as teen mags of the time liked to describe him. Mr Kamen went to a Roman Catholic secondary school in Harlow, where his formal education ended. In his late teens, he and his brother Barry, who was, later, also a model and (with another brother Chester) a musician, worked in a clothing shop in Covent Garden. It was here that the lads met Mr Petri.

Nick Kamen and Madonna in a recording studio. Photo: Sire Records

According to the lore of the ’80s, Mr Petri had gone to the shop to borrow clothes for a shoot. It was that fateful meeting that led to Mr Kamen’s first magazine cover for The Face, an ’80s British title that went into hiatus in 2004. Although it returned as a quarterly and an online edition two years ago, many of today’s readers of e-mags are unlikely to know of The Face and its influence to readers, such as SOTD contributor Raiment Young. “I bought every issue back then,” he told us. “It was a magazine to read, which was not always what mags of the era, way before the World-Wide Web, offered. They covered music raves (which I could only read about) like political rallies! And the covers, always different from the last, were just unlike anything I had seen.” The Face was one of the few that covered emerging sub-cultures and underground scene of that time, putting out covers that were not considered cover material, typical of the Margaret Tatcher years: a visual identity that is exceedingly cool, but not necessarily swinging along with what was fashionable.

Mr Petri had a thing for using unknowns. The images he created was almost entirely his own making, save pressing the shutter button of the camera. His trend-setting photographic partner-in-crime was Jamie Morgan. Together they created an unmistakable aesthetic that The New York times called a “supermarket of styles”. Nick Kamen on The Face issue of 1984 (top) that kicked off the New Year exemplified that mish-mash. Now, we won’t bat an eyelid on styling that appear to imagine a spiffy manager of a ski shop creating his own #OOTD, with a bandaged gash on the right brow, but back then, when designer mania was emerging and Italian, especially, considered the height of chic, the young model looking the way he did was seen as anti-establishment: beanie, military insignia, aviators, and—untypical of magazine covers (Anna Wintour, then creative director at US Vogue before her editorship of the British edition a year later, would have puked)—Band-Aid (like an open inverted comma) and roughly-applied lip balm! This was not the American Gigolo look, made famous by the 1980 film, with costume designed by Giorgio Armani. This was “Buffalo.”

Publicity still during the launch of Every Time You Break My Heart. Photo: Sire Records

Mr Kamen’s ability to embrace realness and defiance so stylishly and, to many, sexily, was his greatest appeal. As soon as he was launched, he became associated with the totally DIY Buffalo style that Ray Petri dreamed up at the time, and with which the stylist (a self-created title, his friends declared) would go on to define British menswear of the ’80s, first at The Face and later at sibling Arena. Buffalo, a word used in the Caribbean to mean boys that were rude and rebellious, was appropriated to be synonymous with fearless self-expression. It became a personal trademark of Mr Petri, and it involved a British clique of mainly guys: fellow stylist Mitzi Lorenz, the photographers Roger Charity, Jamie Morgan, and Cameron McVey (he dated Neneh Cherry, one of the few Buffalo girls, who sang the 1988 hit Buffalo Stance, which sampled from Malcom McClaren’s 1983 track Buffalo Gals), and the crucial models who could express the Buffalo attitude: Wade Tolera; Tony Felix; the 13-year-old Felix Howard (The Face‘s youngest cover model); and, of course, Nick Kamen and his brother Barry.

With Buffalo’s influence stretching across the world, it was Nick Kamen who came to represent the much-touted Buffalo stance, culminating in a career-defining 1985 Levi’s TV commercial that showed him stripped—in a busy launderette—to his white boxers (a now-not-shocking reveal that may have been copped from a Jamie Morgan-lensed fashion spread that appeared earlier—in the March 1985 issue of The Face—when Mr Kamen wore similar white boxers and a black T-shirt under a trench coat). Ringing success embraced the American jeans brand and the British model. It is understandable why Mr Morgan called him “our muse”. Comedian Matt Lucas told the media recently, “If you didn’t have a crush on Nick Kamen in the ’80s, you probably weren’t there.”

Man in skirt, not a shocker now, but back then, scandal-rousing. Styled by Ray Petri. Photo: Jamie Morgan/The Face

The model was one of the earliest of that time to cross successfully over to pop. Mr Kamen’s big break arrived when Madonna came admiring, and handed him the song, Each Time You Break My Heart, one that was omitted from her third album, 1986’s True Blue. The accompanying video, shot by the French fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino, featured many of Mr Petri’s coterie of friends/models, including the boy-star Felix Howard (who later appeared in Madonna’s Open Your Heart and Sinitta’s Toy Boy MVs) and Mr Kamen’s girlfriend at that time, American model and 1989 Licenced to Kill’s Bond girl Talisa Soto (later, he also dated another ’80s model, the German Tatjana Patitz). So sure of his singing potential she was that Madonna even did the backing vocals of Each Time You Break My Heart, but Nick Kamen did not have a voice that you’d remember; he wasn’t a Sam Smith. He did, however, have a presence that worked well on stage and, with the emergence of music television (MTV), winsome close-ups. Although some haters of that time referred to his songs as “himbo pop”, he would continue to release another four albums, all with varying degrees of success, but none to equal those by the likes of Rick Astley or Nik Kershaw.

As the telling of most who knew him goes, Mr Kamen was an extremely nice individual, so uncommon a trait in the business of fashion and pop music that stars still remember him by his niceness. Boy George, the first to break the news of his death, posted on Instagram, “RIP to the most beautiful and sweetest man”. Duran Duran’s John Taylor wrote on Twitter, “One of the loveliest and gentlest men I ever met.” Madonna was just as effusive on IG, “You were always such a kind sweet human.” Could Neneh Cherry, three decades earlier, too, have referred to Nick Kamen when she sang in Buffalo Stance, “No money man could win my love. It’s sweetness I’m thinking of”?

Her Power

Billie Eilish’s new single from her upcoming second album has immense force and pull

By Ray Zhang

Every time I listen to Billie Eilish I have to remind myself that she’s nineteen. Barely out of her adolescence, she’s not supposed to sound like this. Way past my adolescence, I am not supposed to like her (!), or specifically, her music. But I do. Ms Eilish is not, image wise, my cup of teh C kosong. I do, however, like her songs—they have a pull that, by convention, I shouldn’t now enjoy—when I am supposed to be in reminiscent mode and collecting old Kean albums in vinyl! Her first album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? of 2019 really caught me the way teens releasing first albums almost never do. Like my colleague Mao Shan Wang, it took me quite a while to intensely enjoy Miley Cyrus, and it wasn’t until her much later, later albums and The Backyard Sessions that really got me hooked. That girl can sing. And Billie Eilish too. And neither just for the tween-aged.

The voice is always important to me. I am never into voices that scream, roar, or belt. Or that are desperate to be cute. I like it when they don’t sound forced, as if in participation of some vocal Olympics or a jam session where the crooners are clearly out of their league. I understand why there is so much hooha about Joanna Dong’s (董姿彦) performance at the Star Awards. She over did everything—impress took the place of express. Subtlety is not her style, showing off is. Ms Eilish, by contrast, sings as if to you only, in her ballads, especially. There is an intimacy that is rather uncommon in the Idol-era bombast. She does not make dramatic note leaps, but within the gentle coos of an ungirlish-sounding tone, I can hear that she uses her voice in a skillful and nuanced way. Her vocal ability does not attempt to outpace the music, and it works rather well with minimal arrangements. Such as her latest single.

Early this week, Ms Eilish announced through social media that she will be releasing her sophomore album Happier Than Ever in July. Since then fans have been expecting a teaser by way of a single. They didn’t have to wait long. Your Power is for the woke generation, a ballad with folksy undertones that draws you in. Against a rather spare arrangement, with strummy guitars, rather than fierce electronica, Your Power is for waking up to, for drive time, and for going to bed with. It is not for pre-club hours or to get you moving your hips while readying to go out or while doing housework. I find its simplicity not quite so simple, and extremely refreshing, as in her Bond theme No Time to Die. Both Ms Eilish and producer/co-writer brother Finneas have a flair for tunes. The lilt and the legato are nothing like what’s recorded these days; the hummability is easy to catch on, but maybe not; the accessibility not quite Taylor Swift. I feel I am listening to a follow-up to the lush Everything I Wanted. While much of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was tethered to teenage angst, Your Power is a far more grown-up confrontation with the real difficulties and threats young women have to navigate in the world of entertainment, and beyond.

Lyrically, Ms Eilish, now all-blonde and big enough to let a python curl around her, sounds like she grew up too soon in the glare of the spotlight and in the company of music-exec creeps. Your Power broaches the IRL prevalence of sexual abuse, especially by an older, abler person. The words suggest a scumbag in similar business that Ms Eilish is in: “Will you only feel bad if it turns out they kill your contract?” If only more women—the way-to-young as well: “She was sleeping in your clothes/But now she’s got to get to class”—will take the senior, more powerful person on! And to protest sooner than later: “How dare you and how could you?” Despite the dismay and anger, she is aware of her own vulnerability (as well as others in similar positions): “I thought that I was special, you made me feel/ Like it was my fault you were the devil”. This isn’t being only woke, it is being awake too.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Screen grab: YouTube

A Good Let Down

Paris Jackson’s debut single is surprisingly listenable. And she didn’t have to take after her dad Michael

Paris Jackson doesn’t sound like a Jackson, not one bit—not vocally, not musically, and therein possibly lies her peculiar appeal. Nor, does she even look like a Jackson even when her father has unusually fair skin for a black man (attributed to vitiligo), which, to us, possibly gives her an edge. With her debut single let down (lower case her choice), she showed that she can go the musical route her own adult way. There isn’t the necessity to reach into her father’s back catalogue. And she need not ride on her family name, or the reputation of the King of Pop.

We really didn’t expect this. The eldest child of a child-prodigy dad really chose her own path. Unlike the youngest member of the Jackson 5, she took her time, starting rather late (her father’s career as a soloist began when he was 13. She’s now 22). As an artiste, she did not grow up in the presence of an adoring audience. Lyrically this is a rather a teenaged view of love lost, and but musically, it has a maturity that brings to mind Billie Eilish. We are not familiar with Ms Jackson’s influences, but it seems she is—at least for now—staying clear of the R&B much associated with the legacy of the paternal side of her family. Or, the two famous aunts.

When we first heard let down—from the up-coming debut LP Wilted, we thought of Sophie Zelmani (whose Going Home was covered by Faye Wong as Passenger [乘客] in the 2003 album To Love [将爱]). In that sense, the sound is rather European, compared to those of her American peers releasing first albums. Co-written with Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull, the song surprisingly avoids a catchy dance hook or Thriller kind of hard edge, preferring strumming guitars and the gentle swell of rather lush orchestration. The sum borders on what might be considered trendy melancholy pop. With the name Jackson in mind, it takes a while to get used to her somewhat wispy voice (her father, for sure, isn’t exactly known for his deep power vocals). But Paris Jackson sings with conviction and the pleasing tune quickly wins us over.

The accompanying video isn’t visually ground-breaking stuff and Ms Jackson offers no impactful sartorial statement, unlike, again, Billie Eilish. She wears (to a ball?) vaguely Victorian gowns—seemingly corseted—and a prairie dress (or two) that suggests lounge wear of another era than what has been popular during pandemic lockdowns. And how the nose ring fits isn’t clear. Ms Paris has been a model (and still is), but she has not (yet) been a fashion darling. Gucci clearly hasn’t invited her to appear in their films-as-fashion-show. It is, however, possible that she may make a mark through her music—if listeners don’t find her a let down.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Screen grabs: Paris Hilton/Vevo

Hip-Hop Flop

Was Versace selling fashion or music?

 

Versace SS 2021 P1

Sure, in the age of e-fashion presentations, lines are often blurred. Since fashion and music go hand in hand like a needle and thread, they do often come together to make some noise, although if the music is sweet is another matter. Versace, like other brands, have decided to play this easy pairing up. They chose to work with the British rapper from Ladbroke Grove, AJ Tracey and the Sudanese-American model Anok Yai (who considered Carine Roitfeld writing in an Instagram post about her—“Anok is not a black woman, she is my friend”—as “insensitive”) to create a music video. And in doing so, they targeted two birds with one stone, simultaneously shining the spotlight on black creatives—an on-trend theme.

AJ Tracey and his companion arrived at the filming venue, both already togged in Versace, which raised the possible that the music video was backed by the brand. He got to pick whatever he wanted to wear and proceeded to meet the other participants of the video, primarily Anok Yai. The singing and recording proceeded, he doing his thing, she doing hers, both with no contact that can be considered friendly nor communication electric. The video might lure fans of the rapper, but fashion folks won’t be impressed by the model. We were suddenly nostalgic for George Michael’s Freedom! ’90.

Versace SS 2021 P2

Versace has always had a deep relationship with hip-hop stars that goes back to the late Tupac walking the brand’s runway, even singing, in the 1995 Hit Em Up, “now it’s all about Versace, you copied my style”. A year later, he wore a  black double-breasted Versace suit with pronounced shoulders to the 38th Grammy Awards. And then everyone else that mattered, from Jennifer Lopez to Kanye West to P. Diddy, were linked to the house of the Medusa head. Even Vogue declared back in 2015 that “Versace and hip-hop have the ultimate love affair”.

When a fashion season is bereft of fashion, what Versace showed only augmented that perception. Music, however catchy, even sung by the latest rap hottie, will not be able to stand in for the clothes—or the lack of them. Presented was a “Flash collection”, showing the few (preview number?) pieces that would be available for sale online next month. Donatella Versace appeared in the video to welcome the star artiste, but not to introduce or explain the ideas behind the collection. Personal appearance is always useful in advertising, and she knew it. Perhaps, with the designer showing up, we can add one more look to the video’s sad total of less than a dozen.

Screen grab: versace.com

Chromatica: An Oddly Retro Album

Lady Gaga’s just-released new material sounds like a pastiche from the past

 

Lady Gaga Stupid Love videoLady Gaga suitably attired for a pandemic-era music video. Screengrab: Lady Gaga/YouTube

Lady Gaga does move fast. She has gone from Bad Romance to, now, Stupid Love. She’s switched from dueting with Tony Bennett to, now, Elton John (both consistently still older—much older—men). She’s pushed from dance-pop to lounge jazz and, now, back to dance-pop. She has electrified from blond to, now, pink. One thing is certain, though: Lady Gaga is always there with you in your darkest hour, when you’re down, rejected, prejudiced against, and with the kind of clothes that, as usual, threaten to overshadow her message, if not her music. In addition, now, there are the “kindness punks”!

Watching her newest music video, Stupid Love, is like viewing a sci-fi B-movie, complete with schlock-y story line, fake planetary sets, vinyl-plasticky costumes, but without an Attack of the 50ft Woman. Lady Gaga looked like Ariana Grande doing Lady Gaga doing Ariana Grande. (Incidentally, Ms Grande duets with the former in the track Rain on Me.) The Born This Way chart-topper dances with the same energy that she always projects, but now with a cheerfulness and bounce once associated with Debbie Gibson.

20-05-31-23-48-53-670_decoSoaked during inclement weather, Lady Gaga in Rain on Me. Screen grab: Lady Gaga/YouTube

A Lady Gaga performance is enjoyed for both songs and costumes, and in Stupid Love, fans won’t be disappointed. Chromatica is not a about colour nor, in the case of the singer’s profession, about modifications of normal musical scales. The title of her sixth studio album is apparently the name of a planet that “rots on conflict”. And on it, inhabitants, formed by “many tribes”, dress and dance fabulously, “while the Spiritual ones pray and sleep for peace” and the Kindess Punks fight for Chromatica”. It is not clear who Lady Gaga is in this motley population, but she does dress to look like some futuro-chieftain. Her dancers—fellow Chromaticans?—surprisingly nearly threatened to outdo her. Accessorised to the hilt, they are in Victoria’s Secrets fabulousness, Mad Max madness, eco-warrior juggle greens, and, incongruently, a few shower-curtain caftans Andre Leon Talley would definitely approve.

Lady Gaga’s albums are not known for their conceptual heft. Visually, perhaps, but not musically. The Fame is indeterminate reputation than solid output, Artpop is more pop than art, just to name two. All along it’s her image (as before, conceived and styled by partner-in-crime Nicola Formichetti) and the danceability of her songs that conduce to her success. Chromatica is a clear extension of what she has been doing, save the rather protracted jazz interlude (with the Sound of Music thrown in for good measure). For those seeking the moderately experimental from an artiste that’s musically straight-forward, this album is the vanilla among tubs of cookie dough/cherry/chocolate snap-studded.

Chromatica cover art work

Cover art of Chromatica. Photo: Lady Gaga

Perhaps we were hoping for a tad more. With repeated listening, the album sounds uneven, as if begging for a remix. A nod to disco—between 1980 to 1995?—is clear enough, but the sonic imagery swings from the droning beat/base of Lipps Inc.’s Funky Town in 911 to the faint Shibuya groove of Sour Candy (with Blackpink guesting and its vogue-able chorus). Lady Gaga, as critics have constantly reminded us, can sing. Yet, most of the tracks depend, again, on what sounds like vocoder-tweaked vocals to ventriloquially transmute her singing into some robo-high expression. Repeatedly heard too are bass lines and electro-riffs that we have come to associate with a certain anthemic, hip-swaying, head-bobbing pop that the tribe of Bengs and Lians enjoy.

Albums drenched in dance beats could be an antidote to the present climate. “This is my dance floor I fought for,” Lady Gaga sings on Free Woman (with a chorus that reminds us of Ultra Naté’s 1997 hit Free). At a time still a lock down for many, listeners may share her dance floor too. Chromatica is, for a generation of quarantined party-goers, the soundtrack of Zoom happy hours. 

Reprise: Listening To Another ‘Home’

A nation in song earlier this evening, but some of us aren’t moved. Do we have to be?

 

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By Raiment Young

It has been a grey day, but the evening is not a natural progression of the day-time gloominess into sedative twilight. The night looks agreeable, with a discernible petrichor of earthy familiarity and an increasing darkness, dappled with leftover blue that struggles to express. Still, there is a sureness that seems to agree with what American school teacher Jeb Dickerson observed, “A setting sun still whispers a promise for tomorrow”.

If this night has a social media account, I’d sent it a Friend Request. But this night, with a digital life or not, has many others to connect with than to address my pointless entreaty. Sing Together Singapore was just broadcast, a roughly six-minute crepuscular chorus, led by Dick Lee and digitally patched to encourage citizens to sing the pop-track-turn-national-song Home in the quiet of night. Communicating via social media in song has gained traction during this pandemic, affirming, once again, that not only is our life increasingly connected, it is so by means of entertainment, or what is entertaining. More and more, the unconnected and unentertained self is too lonely a dwelling.

I’m replacing Dick Lee with Terry Hall, supplanting one Home by another, a 22-year-old song by a 26-year-old album. Terry Hall’s Home accompanied me through the early years of my professional life. Formerly of the Coventry band The Specials, Mr Hall was the indie-pop act with a jaunty vibe and a jangly sound that, post-Brit-synth-pop, I found greatly appealing. Looking back, I hear a sparkling optimism that seems right for today.

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Before I could past track three, Dick Lee Peng Boon (李迪文) appeared on my TV screen as sprightly as he usually is, attired as if ready to be subject of a Warhol portrait. When he spoke, “Hello, Singapore…”, I kept waiting for it to end with “weather report brought to you by Mitsubishi Electric”. As he was looking rather closely into what I assumed to be a webcam, he loomed a little larger than what I normally would find comfortable. Even newscasters don’t fill the viewable space to this extent (maybe BBC’s Rico Hizon). Or, was it because I was not sure having a hi-def familiar stranger in my living room, close-up-as-backdrop, singing Home the umpteenth time could be deemed conducive to my stay-home well-being.

I like to think it’s Home fatigue, but I’m not alluding to cabin fever. You know what they say about too much of a good thing. Frankly, I’m sick of it. For some reason, the song has never struck me in a way it has others, or the nation. I like the original Kit Chan (陈洁仪) version of 1997/98 in that it was then not sung with nationalistic fervour to rally a people. Ms Chan has one of those warm voices that is beguiling, especially in lower registers. No one who sang Home after her has come close to the intimacy and tenderness that she imbued the song with. Not even Dick Lee himself, now leading the eight-person sing-a-long, not as a choir master but as the leader of cheer leading, and that was what Sing Together Singapore essentially was.

Home will have its place it the history of national songs, but will it leave a legacy in the pop domain? As a pop tune, it ticks the boxes for simplicity of lyrics, structure, and melody. This is as karaoke-friendly as any Canto-pop hit. Yet it has the anthemic mark of songs that can be sung nationally by a sizeable mass, with a manageable tessitura to match. But as with many chart-toppers, Home has outlived its freshness—its sentimentality is beginning to feel tiresome, and its repeated broadcast, especially the singing with comely comradeliness, is on the verge of annoying. I’m not even sure that the broadcast of Sing Together Singapore is providential. How has the exercise made us forget that much of our island is still pestiferous? Of is it, as one media outlet posed, “empty distraction from meaningful action”?

DL

Seeing only a handful of waving torches outside my window, I think of what I would really like to hear. It’s odd that when it comes to songs that can move a nation, we consider only those by the self-styled Son of SG Dick Lee. At the time he was a prolific songwriter, someone else too was managing quite an impressive musical output, the far more percipient Liang Wenfu (梁文福). And one particular song—easy to sing too—I now desire to hear again in these bleak days is the up-lifting Catch the Sunrise with Me (陪我看日出) from 2005, sung by the now mostly forgotten Joi Chua (蔡淳佳). Mr Liang was the lyricist for this track, and the hard-warming narrative that speaks of a better tomorrow—sun after the rain—seems more befitting of the present climate than the reminder of self and nation in Home: “The rain has fallen, walk carefully, I shall remember these words/However hard the wind blows, good blessings will not be carried away with it/After the rain, there would be a way for us to see the sunrise as in the year past (雨下了走好路这句话我记住/风再大吹不走祝福/雨过了就有路像那年看日出).

Admittedly, this (literal) translation captures not the nuances, imagery, and positivity that Mr Liang intended. And not many may consider xinyao heavy with schoolyard innocence—however evocative of our home—not Home enough to sing on a national level. If Dick Lee’s contribution to our city’s catalogue of patriotism-stirring songs must be sung, could it not benefit from some rearrangement, if not reimagining? I am thinking of the rousing rendition of Foo Fighters’ Times Like These, initiated by BBC Radio 1’s Stay Home Live Lounge, featuring Chris Martin, Dua Lipa, Ellie Goulding, and others. Or the 100-year-old fundraiser Captain Tom Moore’s duet with Michael Ball, singing The Weeknd’s You’ll Never Walk Alone, backed by the staff of Britain’s National Health Services (NHS). The latter, this week, charted at number one. These are not only inspiring, they sing of what Jeb Dickerson wrote with palpable hope (and I reiterate), “a promise for tomorrow”.

I am (still) playing Terry Hall’s Home—on loop, something I have not done since my Spotify subscription of many moons ago. Produced by Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds (also on my playlist), Home is Mr Hall’s debut album. I was very much drawn to his lyrics, as much as I was a few years earlier, to Stephen Duffy’s for their art-school vim, tinged with Euro-centric swish. On the opening track, Forever J, Mr Hall croons, “Like Isabelle Adjani/She glides by upon a bank of violets…” It is, hopefully, understandable why, for this evening, as a form of escape from the unsettling reality outside, I’m giving “the river which bring us life” and one that “always flows” a decided miss.

Update (26 April 2020, 3.30): if you need a new take on Home, listen to Mr Brown’s deliciously funny version. Now, he should be leading the sing-a-long

Photo: Jim Sim. Screen grabs: YouTube

Holding Out For A Hero

Is Uniqlo’s message sent by Superman and Louis Lane?

 

Uniqlo on FB

This appeared on Facebook some time today, the start of what is called Circuit Breaker, in response to the increasingly critical situation brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak. The Circuit Breaker (unlike most, we will not use the abbreviated form, so as to edge to the side of propriety) will change the entire local retail landscape, and Japan’s Uniqlo, which, in 2019, ranks 8th in terms of retail sales worldwide, won’t escape the clutches of the business havoc the coronavirus will wreak. Despite the closure of all physical stores on the island, Uniqlo saw it necessary to send a positive message to its customers and followers: “Our stores may be closed for now, but our support for you, our staff and the entire Uniqlo community has not.”

The succinct and optimistic message is accompanied by an illustration of a couple in a classic nan zuo nu you (男左女右 or man on the left, woman on the right) positioning, with their backs facing the viewer. Together with the caption, “We’re Here For You”, it is not unreasonable to assume that Uniqlo is telling us they’ve got our backs covered, but what caught our eyes is the red cape of the male. Could this be the Man of Steel (the blue, skin-tight sleeve also corresponds to the Krptonian’s crime-fighting costume), and if so, is Superman’s arm protectively around his “primary” love interest, Lois Lane, the Daily Planet journalist who married the superhero in 1996?

There is something comforting about this image. Curiously named Secret 7s, it made an earlier appearance: on the cover of Uniqlo’s debut in-house magazine LifeWork (Fall/Winter 2019), and is drawn by Copenhagen-based British illustrator, Adrian Johnson (not, to our knowledge, related to Boris). In fact, it was seen even earlier, as part of the sleeve artwork of the catchy Beck-ish 2015 single The Less I Know the Better by Tame Impala, a psychedelic-pop project of Australian musician Kevin Parker, whose stylo-retro-ish music and videos are a neat fit with the artist’s Procreate-rendered picture. Mr Johnson’s simple yet striking, colour-blockish pieces have appeared in The New Yorker and Monocle,and in the marketing communications of brands such as Stussy, Norse Project, and the Japanese fashion label and retail store Tomorrowland.

As much as we are aware, Mr Johnson has not identified the two individuals of his art. Named or not, a superhero is a symbol of hope, beacon of strength; a graspable certainty that we will triumph over evil, which COVID-19, as the most destructive villains go, definitely is.

Photo: Uniqlo/Facebook

Is This The Most Beautiful And Heartfelt Bond Song?

Billie Eilish delivers what’s possibly the most gorgeous 007 theme. And one to likely go beyond the limitations of the OST

 

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By Emma Ng

Billie Eilish has really been in the news since winning four Grammys last month. Aside from the strides she has made in fashion, we have noted here in SOTD how lovely her voice is. And to that, I want to add: she sings, not scream. And that appealingly just-sing vocal is what makes her work in the latest Bond (25th) theme song so captivating. At the first listening of No Time to Die, what struck me—and beautifully so—is how free of histrionics the track is, not just vocally, but musically too.

I am now having trouble reconciling No Time to Die with the typical opening title sequence of Bond films, with their swirling graphics and the suggestively naked woman (women?) dancing as if the audience would not imagine she has no clothes on, or is near-nude (never mind if on occasions, body-con dresses could be discerned, or heels). How is Ms Eilish’s mellow sound and unrushed phrasing going to soundtrack what’s traditionally a visual expression that leans on art-as-titillation posturing? I try to imagine and all I can come up with is oversized, boxy Chanel pantsuit! Will Ms Eilish work into her contract that any visual accompanying her music must obscure, especially in the depicting of silhouetted women, any overt sexiness and sexuality (her own outline a perfect example)?

No Time to Die plays like Bond themes of yore coming together, but that would be simplistic, even if the chorus harks back to the melodic preferences of the past. To me, there’s something suitably Brit about Ms Eilish’s sound, made more alluring with a lo-fi warmth. It opens softly—almost a hush—with the piano, and then she intones, “I should have known/I’d leave alone/just goes to show/that the blood you bleed is just the blood you owe”. Ms Eilish turns 18 this December. Does that sound like a teenager to you? The opening lines set the mood and theme of the song: balladic, bleak, brill.

How is it that Bond himself and the numerous screen writers have never thought that “licence to kill” could pay back, and that it takes a teenager (and her co-writer-brother, Finneas O’Connor) to see the deserving turn? I don’t profess to know what every line means even having heard the music on loop all afternoon (or try to see if the lyrics foretell what is going to happen to Mr Bond in the upcoming film), but there is something too mature and too true and too heartfelt when someone so young sings, “Are you death or paradise?/Now you’ll never see me cry/there’s just no time to die”. It really hit me. Or, maybe, it’s Valentine’s?

I have never been so drawn to a Bond theme, not even Adele’s grand-sounding, jazz-sure Skyfall. And I don’t even remember what Sam Smith’s Writing’s On The Wall sounds like. Ms Eilish’s pull is as much her close-mic singing as her ability to draw you in: she seems to be directing every word, every note at you, alone. She does not get pitchy; she does not belt, she doesn’t try to impress; she does not over-colour. (Doubters should listen to her sing Yesterday at the Oscars.) I, too, like that the arrangement of the track is lush, a compelling counterpoint to the writing duo’s often bleak, melancholic, and off-kilter style. The sum: tasteful. Never thought I’d say that about a Bond theme song.

Photo: Universal Music Group

No Skirmish, No Discord

But a senses-arousing engagement. Clash de Cartier, a three-day on-site event, is welcome experiential marketing

 

Big brands and flashy events are hardly a clash when it comes to reaching out to customers, regular and new. Cartier’s “pop-up studio”, set up to introduce the Clash de Cartier range of punk-inspired jewellery, is a marketing splash—in the tradition of Time, A Hermès Object—that, even with the a-little-way-out location, is an enjoyable stress-free experience. Despite the madness that was yesterday’s media preview, attended by Korean actor/singer Ji Chang Wook—“babyfaced”, as CNA decribed him—and local stars and influencers, the pop-up, minus the celeb clash, is, admittedly, an extremely nice way to spend an hour or two of a scorching afternoon.

Clash de Cartier, the jewellery line, was launched earlier this year (the party in Paris in April was a couture confrontation among the celebrity invitees!). The pop-up studio here is, according to the creator of the Tank watch, the first time it has made an appearance in South-East Asia (and thought to be one of the largest that has travelled anywhere). This is the spot to try the Clash de Cartier jewellery pieces without any obligation to buy. If service matters to you, this could be enjoyable as the chirpy staff are eager to let you try any one of the pieces that you like or every piece in the showcase.

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Upon entering the space proper on the second floor of what is part of the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, a staffer will greet you and request that you fill a questionnaire of sort on an iPad. This is a personality evaluation not unlike the many of those shared by your friends on Facebook (such as the numerous determining if you are dateable, fun-loving, or a bitch). The results will decide if you start at the book store or the record store, which, if you’re directed to, may escalate your hip quotient, considering vinyls’ born-again popularity.

Regardless of where you begin, the spaces have enough edge to let you feel a bit with it, if not exactly a major clash with the establishment, which, considering, is Cartier the 172-year-old luxury house. Among the books, if you’re able to single out Patricia Highsmith’s 1955-psychological-thriller-turn-1999-movie, you may be able to show yourself to be as talented as Tom Ripley. Here, you can have a haiku composed for your personality type (“Outwardly _________”) and typed out on an old Olympia typewriter. Cross to the room dedicated to vinyls, and if you’re able to immediately sing to The Slits’ version of I Heard it Through the Grapevine, you may be able to tell others that you’re, in fact, a post-punk with a weakness for a 1966 Motown song associated with Marvin Gaye, but was originally sung by The Miracles.

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Music is very much a part of the Clash de Cartier experience although we did not hear anything by the obvious choice of The Clash. Instead it was more indie-au courant: if the textile-factory-turn-hotel L’Hôtel Fabric in Paris had a soundtrack to its premises, this would be it. The playlist is put together by Michel Gaubert, dubbed “fashion’s leading sound director” and very much associated with the late Karl Lagerfeld for whom he put together the music for the designer’s own shows, as well as those by Chanel and Fendi. Commercially, he is known for the hotch-potch, Buddha Bar-ish ‘mixtapes’ that were conceived for the now-defunct Parisian store Colette. During our 45-minute or so visit, we heard a rather multifarious selection, from Soft Cell’s major hit of the minor 1964 song Tainted Love (by the now-obscure Gloria Jones) to the less-known ’80s German pop sisters Humpe und Humpe’s Yama-ha, a Miharu-Koshi-meets-ABBA-esque electro-ditty with lyrics that listed popular consumer Japanese brands!

Wander into the ‘Try’ space, which we presume should be the reason you’re here, you can examine in your hands (or wear) the necklaces, bracelets, and rings—either gold or white gold—till your heart’s content. No need to succumb to the unseemly discussion of price (but an arrangement can be made for you, if desired, to meet a salesperson at the store of your choice). The good-natured staff chat with you as if you have grown up in a Cartier store. It’s this bonhomie disposition that pervades the entire pop-up experience.

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Lastly, you’d be guided to a Two-Face of a café, with one half looking like a retro-cool interior Violet Oon would love to cop for herself rather than the neu-TWA posh of her present restaurants, and the other, with a sleek row of plush banquet seating that, for some reason other than chromatic, reminded us of the Alain Ducasse-headlined Chanel restaurant Beige. For all your efforts in the Clash de Cartier pop-up, you’re treated to surprisingly good coffee (from Bettr Barista) and an assiette de mignardises (plate of sweets) of a trio of the tiniest pastries you’ll ever pop into your mouth.

As we sat in the café to take in the extravagant marketing exercise, and enjoy Marc Almond’s urgent torch voice and Dave Ball’s seductive synth, it became apparent to us that the clash is not some abstract or implied idea, washed down by soothing caffeinated beverages, but manifestation for all to see. In the space of considerable thought and clear effort, a goodly number of visitors were togged as if en route to the neighbourhood Toast Box. Clash is surely here, perhaps more potent than Cartier could imagine.

Clash de Cartier Studio, 15—17 Nov 2019, is at STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery, 41 Robertson Quay. Ticketed entry only. Photos: Galerie Gombak