Sunday, October 31, 2010

Madonna -- "Beautiful Stranger" (1999)

If I'm smart then I'll run away
But I'm not so I guess I'll stay
Haven't you heard
I fell in love with a beautiful stranger

"If I'm smart, then I'll run away" -- oh sure, like that's gonna happen.  I'm not smart and neither are you -- at least not when confronted with a beautiful stranger.

It's much easier for a stranger to be beautiful, don't you think?  She's beautiful in part because she is a stranger.  The stranger part makes it much easier to fall in love with her.

Are you a little surprised that I'm blogging about a Madonna song --  and such a girly Madonna song at that?    Well, get over it.  If you're willing to accept this song on its own terms, it's just about perfect.

This is the last post of the first year of "2 or 3 lines" -- and it's no accident that I chose this song to mark that milestone.  "Beautiful Stranger" is the last Madonna hit released in the old millennium, so there's another reason it's a good choice for the last post of the first year of "2 or 3 lines."  (As most of you no doubt realize, the new millennium didn't begin on January 1, 2000, but on January 1, 2001, but sometimes you've just gotta go with the flow.)  Also, tonight is Halloween, and Madonna is a woman who has put on many masks in her career -- or a woman who has remade herself many times, if you prefer.  (In the music video of this song, she's is described as a "master of disguise.")

Arthur Lee and Love
"Beautiful Stranger" is a perfect little pop song whose soul has been psychedelicized.  (You know what song that word is from, don't you?)    It was released in 1999, but the seed that grew into this song was sowed in 1966, which is when Arthur Lee and Love released "She Comes in Colors," a song that some people believe Madonna's song is derived from.  (Others have pointed out the similarity of the "Beautiful Stranger" introduction to the beginning of "Light My Fire.")

There are some other things about this song that should be familiar to you.  For example, the phrase "You're the devil in disguise."  In 1963, Elvis Presley had a big hit with a song titled "(You're the) Devil in Disguise."  In 1969, the Flying Burrito Brothers released an album that included a song titled "Christine's Tune."  The first line of that song (which is repeated several times) was "She's the devil in disguise" -- the name "Christine" is never mentioned in the song, and if you heard the song without knowing better, you'd probably guess that "devil in disguise" is in the title.

I'm not going to try to make the case that "Beautiful Stranger" is original.  It doesn't purport to be original.  It's intentionally retro -- after all, it was written for the soundtrack of Austin Powers: the Spy Who Shagged Me, an intentionally retro takeoff on the James Bond movies of the 60s and 70s.

But it's a brilliant pastiche of familiar elements -- and isn't that what so many great works of art (for example, most of Shakespeare's plays) are?

"Beautiful Stranger" demonstrates the composer's and producer's mastery of the vocabulary of pop music.  It's a very complicated song, both in its design and in its execution.

It's like a lot of pop songs from 40 years ago -- songs that were very commercial in intent, written and produced by professionals who knew all the right buttons to push and when to push them.  But somehow those songs work -- you buy into the best of them totally, forgetting that they were essentially products of a musical assembly line.  (Frankly, I'd much rather have a songwriter with skill and a broad and deep musical vocabulary than one who tries to get by on sincerity and intense feelings.)

Madonna -- the ultimate self-made pop star -- is the perfect match for this song.  It's the kind of song she was born to sing, and she nails it.  She nails it by not trying all that hard to sell it.

In a way, it's all as phony as a three-dollar bill.

Possible design for proposed three-dollar bill

Does anyone believe Madonna for a minute when she says she "looked into [the stranger's] eyes, and my world came tumbling down" -- that she's "paid for [him] with tears, and swallowed all her pride"?  Not a chance -- Madonna's on the giving end of that sort of thing, not the receiving end.  Even if we didn't know it was Madonna singing the song, her delivery is so cool and restrained that it's hard to take the words all that seriously.

But if she tried to sell it harder -- really put some feeling into it -- I don't think this song could carry that kind of emotional weight.  It would turn into a parody of itself.  So she just sort of puts the lyrics out there, knowing that the professionalism of the whole production will suck us in.

Dwight Clark (1982)
It reminds me of a long touchdown drive masterminded by a veteran QB and executed by a very good team.  No trick plays, no 4th-down "Hail Mary" miracles -- just a nice mixture of runs and passes, utilizing different runners and receivers.  The opponent barely feels the knife going in due to the skill and dispassion with which it is wielded by the quarterback, until all of a sudden the defensive players are lying on the ground, bleeding to death, and the football is in the end zone.

I fell for this song the second or third time I heard it, and I fell hard.  (I still can't get up.)  Last weekend, I listened to it for about 45 minutes straight while on my bike -- over and over and over.  I never got tired of it.  There are no weak places in its structure, nothing annoying or distracting in -- nothing so idiosyncratic that it starts to stick in your craw.  The song just rolls along, taking you with it.

The soundtrack for The Spy Who Shagged Me sold two million copies in the US alone.  "Beautiful Stranger" song was one of the most played singles in the history of UK radio, and it reached number one is countries as diverse as Canada, South Africa, Italy, and Finland.  The song won a Grammy and the music video won an MTV music video award.

And here's that video -- just ignore all the Austin Powers nonsense and enjoy the song:  

Here's the Arthur Lee and Love song, "She Comes in Colors."  (I am second to no man in my love for Love.  If the haters want to say that "Beautiful Stranger" is a copy, that's OK with me -- there aren't nearly enough Love songs to go around, and a counterfeit Love song is better than nothing.)

Here's a link to iTunes if you'd like to buy this song:

Here's a link to Amazon:

No comments:

Post a Comment