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Ebony and Irony: City Paper Column


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Interesting column looking at both Rufus Wainwright and Mika and their potential... Mika is featured in the second half of the article, but read it all -- it's good! :thumb_yello:


Ebony and Irony

Thirty Years On It's Easier To See The Witty, Poppy Sons And Daughters Of Elton


by Geoffrey Himes



Elton John wasn't the first singer/pianist in rock. But he also wasn't at all like his contemporaries--not Mr. Meat and Potatoes Billy Joel, not cupid-as-genius Stevie Wonder, not one-man Brecht and Weill Randy Newman. John had more in common with rock's first generation of piano-pounders--over-the-top eccentrics such as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis--but with a soft center that his predecessors lacked. He didn't fit in any obvious category.


Only in retrospect is it obvious that John was a point at which gay culture was injected into the pop-music mainstream. The heightened theatricality of everything he did--from the weird glasses to the pumped falsetto, from the stage antics to the unabashed melodrama--came out of a culture where confession was often delivered via disguise. As a marginalized community, gay people had something different and valuable to offer mass culture, and John's knack for Tin Pan Alley hooks made that cultural subversion irresistible.


The latest version of Elton John's greatest hits is called Rocket Man: Number Ones (Rocket/Mercury). It includes all seven of his singles that hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, six more that hit No. 1 elsewhere, four more fan favorites, five songs from a 2005 live show in Las Vegas, and five music videos. Most of it is glorious, but old fans will find it redundant and even newcomers would be better off with Greatest Hits: 1970-2002. But any of John's compilations reinforce the same point: He was unlike almost anyone else in the '70s and '80s. In recent years, however, a number of gifted singer-pianists have emerged to extend John's genre--call it cabaret rock, or simply Eltonia--in new and exciting directions. Ben Folds, Rufus Wainwright, and Mika are all sons of Elton--and Nellie McKay is an obvious daughter.


The most original of John's heirs is Wainwright, the son of folkies Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. The younger Wainwright lacks John's jones for R&B but substitutes a passion for opera, which can easily be as outlandish and unbridled as Little Richard. Like John, Wainwright builds every song atop seductive piano melodies and gorgeous chord changes and then elaborates this ear candy with ornate embellishments. And because Wainwright is a better and braver lyricist than John's longtime partner Bernie Taupin, the roots of this cabaret rock in gay culture are often explicit rather than implicit.


Wainwright traveled from New York to Berlin to record his new album, Release the Stars (Geffen), his first in three years and his first self-produced project. Surrounded by old-world romanticism, he abandoned plans for a bare-bones recording and wrapped his new songs in strings, horns, and voices. Which is fine: You wouldn't want a minimalist confessional from Wainwright anymore than you would from John.


He describes his trip to Berlin on "Going to a Town," which opens with naked, stabbing piano chords, as in John's ballad "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," and unfolds into a melody that's just as juicy. But rather than offering clichés about romantic abandonment, Wainwright, who grew up in Montreal, glances over his shoulder at the United States, his adopted home, and fires off shots at its homophobia ("Do you really think you go to hell for having loved?") and post-Sept. 11 foreign policy ("You took advantage of a world that loved you well"). The song then turns personal, as Wainwright croons over swooning strings that he's "Making my own way home/ Ain't gonna be alone."


Throughout this wonderful album, Wainwright mixes the political and the personal, the high culture of chamber music and the low culture of Top 40 pop. "Between My Legs" begins with a noisy guitar lick and drum smack right out of John's "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)," and backs up its infectious dance beat with this priceless couplet on the connection between sex and sentiment: "I'll write about dancing without you, and I'll shed a tear between my legs." On "Nobody's Off the Hook," he addresses the irony of a John-like gay man who attracts young female admirers: "Who would ever have thought/ Hanging with a homo and a hairdresser/ You would become the one desired in every woman's heart?" It's hard to tell how much he's joking and how much he's serious on a song like "Rules and Regulations," which uses a beguiling trumpet line to bemoan a fate that make some people cuter than others, or on "Slideshow," a dizzying, string-swaddled ballad where he pouts that his lover didn't feature him prominently enough in a slide show.


During this year's South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, Pete Townshend and his partner Rachel Fuller hosted a live edition of Attic Tapes, their internet showcase for new talent. Its most startling revelation was the one-named Mika, a tall, gangly Lebanese-British kid with a thick mop of unruly dark hair in a white T-shirt. He sat down at the upright piano by himself, created a pumping rhythm section with his left hand, ear-grabbing hooks in the right, and warbled a bouncy melody that jumped up into a falsetto, just like John's "Bennie and the Jets."


But Mika's lyrics were as sharp and witty as Wainwright's, taunting a potential lover or music executive: "Why don't you like me?/ Why don't you like yourself?/ Should I bend over?/ Should I look older?" Townshend came out to play guitar on "Love Today," and Mika's composition was so distinctive that the musicians could churn up a disco groove with just their acoustic instruments as Mika's giddy high tenor described universal brotherhood as if it were an out-of-control orgy. Both of these songs are on Mika's debut album, Life in Cartoon Motion (Casablanca/Universal), one of the year's strongest doses of pure pop pleasure so far. In the studio, Mika's co-producer Greg Wells backed up the singer's piano riffs and thrilling vocal melodies with fat, effective dance beats. And almost every song on the album works on that level--an intoxicating disco-pop marriage of Elton John and Sylvester that would satisfy even with the dumbest of lyrics.


But the words are worth paying attention to, full of delicious double entendres ("Suckin' too hard on your lollipop," "Relax, take it easy"), fresh metaphors ("You play me like a kid with a crayon," "My troops are bigger than yours"), and conflicted feelings. "Billy Brown" is a Ray Davies-like look at life in the London suburbs, a chirpy sing-along that describes a happily married husband who falls in love with another man. "Stuck in the Middle," pushed along by a riveting piano hook, captures both the affection and resentment that a son harbors for his father as he leaves home.


John accidentally created a whole new genre with his unembarrassed exaggeration of the rock 'n' roll piano-man tradition. He had no idea where it might lead, if it led anywhere at all, but it turned into a smart, artsy variation that's more comfortable on public radio than on the Top 40 airwaves. Mika's now come along to merge the ambitions of Wainwright, Folds, and McKay with John's universal commerciality. If Mika can make three or four more albums as good as his debut, he may become this genre's giant.

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Great article! It actually makes the Elton John influence/comparison sound like a compliment for a change. And it manages to avoid the words > 'camp' and 'flamboyant' when talking about Mika - oh what a relief!!!!!!!:biggrin2:


I'm glad Ben Folds gets mentioned too, he is very talented and underrated.

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finally an article writte by heart not by brain with words very carefull choosen. the editor write it with i would say with some real admiration for mika's music. he recognize a talent when he see it.

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Elton wasn't always as flashy as he became...and he certainly didn't create the role of flashy piano man. The article does mention Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, but fails to mention the most flashy piano man besides Elton, ever, and that's Liberace. It wasn't a new concept.


However, I get the author's point. I do see what he's trying to say. I don't see Mika as Elton's musical "son" though. Really I don't. I can see an influence, but I don't see it running that deep. I really did like the reference to Ray Davies on "Billy Brown"--that was quite apt I think.


Maybe I'm blind. But I see Mika as being so much more than being the poster boy for the next big gay artist. I honestly don't care if he is gay. It makes no difference to me if he is or not. I loved Freddie, just as he was. I love Mika as he is. I just don't see that as being his major feature, and it seems the media keeps wanting to make that the biggest part of who he is. No wonder he doesn't want to talk about it. This man isn't going on like some others, but sexuality seems to be at the core of what people write about when they write about Mika. Have you ever noticed?


That said, the article is well thought out and interesting. It is amazing to me that Mika got to perform so early on with Pete Townshend. That's awesome that his music stood up to that kind of a test!!!! A test of greatness to be sure!!!!


Thanks deb for posting this article!!!!

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I have to say I was first at least partially drawn to Mika due to his qualities of queerness (and I use the word in the queer studies meaning of the term, having nothing to do with Mika's actual sexuality), but that queerness seemed to be located more in the press than in him. And I very much enjoy his flamboyance and theatricality, and hope he continues on in this vein, but what I see and love in him most now is colorful playfulness, not whatever "campness" that everyone keeps talking about.



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