Monday, November 01, 2010

Dead-ass doin' it: Phil Lynott, Nicki Minaj and other pop chameleons

Time Out New York: Do you think you can still be believable singing a sweet love song after you’ve done all that [raunchier material]—?
Nicki Minaj: Absolutely… I’m believable at whatever I do, because I’m dead-ass doin’ it.
The above was one of my favorite exchanges from a really enjoyable conversation I had with Nicki Minaj on behalf of Time Out. (Check out the full Q&A here if you have a sec.) The sentiment she's expressing—the weird dual personality that's required of a pop star, and the unflappable confidence needed to pull it off—has been ringing a bell with regard to my current listening obsession: Thin Lizzy.

The other day I finally watched The Rocker, a doc about the late Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott that I'd had lying around for a while, and I found myself newly impressed by his versatility. As with Ms. Minaj, whatever he did—whether it was a nakedly sentimental love song, a streetwise picaresque or a sleazy come-on—he was thoroughly convincing. Ludicra and Hammers of Misfortune guitarist John Cobbett eloquently summed up the core paradox of the man in a fine recent Invisible Oranges interview (a quote brilliantly excerpted by Inverted Umlaut): "Phil Lynott is the ultimate lyricist for the tough guy with the broken heart."

Today I've been spinning the outstanding 1979 Lizzy disc Black Rose: A Rock Legend, and I'm somewhat shocked by the sheer variety of emotions expressed here. There's one of Lynott's classic paeans to gritty urban life ("Toughest Street in Town"), a weirdly moralistic meditation on kinky sex ("S&M"), a determinedly sappy yet utterly charming tribute to his daughter ("Sarah," see above for a mind-blowing über-lounge rendition, complete with time-lapse-aging model stand-ins), a rueful I'm-through-with-the-bottle lament ("Got to Give It Up") and a half-crazed romantic kiss-off ("Get Out of Here"). I'm not yet through the concluding title track, but I'm prepared for another left turn.

In a weird way, this wanton versatility, the sheer disregard for emotional continuity, reminds me a lot of Ween's masters-of-disguise approach to album-craft. The message is that of all great pop (from Black Rose to Chocolate and Cheese and beyond): Each song is its own universe; live in this feeling for these three minutes. And maybe when that time has elapsed, you'll be transported in an instant to somewhere completely different. It's the same chameleonic impulse that allows Nicki Minaj to sass her way through "Itty Bitty Piggy" and then dreamily croon "Your Love" in the manner of a doe-eyed teenager. As fans, we're okay with the contradiction—as long as, like the great Phil Lynott, whatever the artist in question is doing at a given moment, he or she is indeed dead-ass doin' it.

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