2016 in 10 songs



I pretty much fell apart on November 9, so apologies for not writing anything new here in a while. I intended for this post to be a year-end list of my favorite new music and TV, but it kept wanting to go in a different direction. So, here are 10 songs that defined 2016 for me. Most of them are old, a few are new, some are offered in tribute to the departed, and all of them have taken on new meaning or been a comfort through the post-election gloom.

1. “Lazarus,” David Bowie. I’m sure you’ve seen the meme about everything falling apart this year because David Bowie was holding together the fabric of the universe. His death on January 10 hit like an earthquake, and 2016 never stopped shaking. Two days before he died, Bowie released Blackstar, which in hindsight, reveals itself (like the clues embedded in the cover of the album) as an urgent, feverish and brave farewell. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” sings the Starman on “Lazarus”; his battered voice flickers with mischief and a daring sort of relief (“This way or no way/I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Oh, I’ll be free”) throughout the song, until it’s replaced in the long fadeout by a somber, lowing sax riff. In the eerie accompanying video, Bowie is in the middle of writing a sentence, creating until the last moment of his existence, when he is pulled away and shut up in a coffin-like closet. Of all the gifts Bowie gave us and all the frontiers he journeyed, pulling us (and the entirety of pop culture) along with him, his final act might have been his most generous. It was death-defying in every sense but the literal. Then again … maybe that too.

2. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Stevie Wonder and Clarence Paul. During the string of police shootings of African American men earlier this year, when half the country lost its mind over the assertion that black lives matter TOO, I was driving around one day with the radio on and heard Stevie Wonder’s 1966 cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” This was a Top 10 hit for Wonder, but I had only dim memories of it from my childhood. But there it was, playing on Sirius XM’s Soul Town channel, which is devoted to R&B and soul hits of the ’60s and ’70s.  Arranged in a country-gospel crossover mode (like his soon-to-be bigger hit, “A Place in the Sun”), this version lives and breathes the injustices counted in Dylan’s lyrics. It reminds you that this song is a protest for civil rights: “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?,” “How many years can a man exist before he’s allowed to be free?”

Hearing the infuriating relevance of those questions in 2016, fifty years after Wonder and Paul recorded them, reminded me that the greatest, and most widely disseminated, protest music of the ’60s and ’70s was recorded by black artists, including Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and Gil Scott-Heron. Edwin Starr’s ferocious anti-Vietnam song “War” went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970; Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home” was number 12 in 1971. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” one of James Brown’s empowerment anthems, reached number six in 1968. Volumes could be written on the powerful statement made by Aretha Franklin’s Afro back in the day. And somehow, I had never heard Lamont Dozier’s 1974 single “Fish Ain’t Bitin’,” with its imprecation, “Tricky Dick, stop this shit,” but Soul Town remedied that. This music was created by and for people fighting for their lives and legitimacy in America. White liberals who are only now discovering what it feels like to be strangers in their own country are advised to listen and learn.

3. “Uptown,” Prince. I’ve listened to Prince every day since April 21. Some days, I need the cathartic “Purple Rain,” a modern hymn, to combat the heartache that has yet to fade. Other days, it’s the unrepentant dance funk of “Housequake” or “Sexy M-F.” But of late, when I hear “Uptown” from Dirty Mind (1980), I’m cast back to what it felt like in those days when “disco sucks” was code for white people (guys, mostly) to indulge in racism and homophobia — it didn’t all start with MAGA. Just one year after the idiotic “Disco Demolition” riot of 1979, Prince released his electro-funk-new wave tune about a dance utopia where “white, black Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’,” and proved that disco was on the right side of history.

I first saw Prince in a rock club in Boston, the city itself only a few years removed from the turmoil surrounding desegregation of the public schools. With a cheeky punk swagger, the diminutive singer packed both the showmanship of James Brown and the guitar-god sexual mojo of Jimi Hendrix; the predominantly white audience didn’t know what hit them (that goes for me, too). In Prince’s world, all were welcome; his racially-diverse band included two out lesbians. And Prince’s persona itself — the falsetto, the female aliases, the eyeliner and furry jockstrap — blurred boundaries of sexual orientation and gender (although he exhibited troubling homophobia later in his career). “Uptown” was a joyful place where society’s marginalized and demonized could be free. I refuse to believe it was an illusion.

4. “Daddy Lessons,” Beyonce. Beyonce was the cultural figure of the year. Like Luther, President Obama’s Anger Translator from the Key & Peele show, Beyonce was Michelle Obama’s off-duty secret self — check out FLOTUS grooving to “Single Ladies” and rapping along with Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” during this much-shared installment of James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke.” Just like the first lady, Beyonce became a lightning rod for bigots who smeared her as an Angry Black Woman and cast her in vile racist memes, but she kept on singing, angrier and blacker, as the year went on. The Black Panthers fashion nod at the Super Bowl. The sinking police car and Black Lives Matter imagery in the “Formation” video. The “I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” line. The baseball bat and I-ain’t-sorry.

A few days before the election,  Beyonce teamed up with the Dixie Chicks at the Country Music Awards for a rowdy, unrepentant performance of “Daddy Lessons” from Lemonade. With the country polarized by the open racism (excuse me, “economic anxiety”) embraced by the supporters of the bad-daddy authoritarian in the cut-rate trucker’s hat, the CMA Awards moment took on an electrifying subtext. Here were the second most powerful African American woman in the land and the liberal country music pariah Natalie Maines (both Hillary Clinton supporters) celebrating the common roots shared by black blues and white country. Of course, there was outrage from the usual suspects. But Beyonce and the Dixie Chicks are not sorry.

5. “Under Pressure,” Queen and David Bowie. A song that encapsulated the Cold War nuclear fears of the Reagan Era comes back to haunt us. I put “Under Pressure” on a Bowie playlist, to which I’ve often escaped, post-coup. Most days, my mood pinballs between “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about” and “Can’t we give love one more chance?” And Bowie and Freddie Mercury’s operatic swirl of compassion bittersweetly marks the challenge we face. Love’s such an old-fashioned word, but so what?  This is our last dance, this is ourselves, under pressure.

6. “Livin’ in the Future,” Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s underrated 2007 album Magic, which largely concerned itself with the smoke and mirrors of the Bush II Administration, contained brutally clear songs warning about what happens when abuses of power become the norm. In the bleary morning hours after election night, lines from “Livin’ in the Future’ popped into my head — which was strange because this was the one song from Magic that I never cared for. I thought its apocalyptic visions were too overheated and its illogical chorus too tricky (“we’re livin’ in the future, none of this has happened yet”). Yet, every day since November 9, Springsteen’s lyrics become more chillingly true: “My ship Liberty sailed away on a bloody red horizon/ The groundskeeper opened the gates and let the wild dogs run.” That weird chorus wasn’t a trick after all. It was precognition.

7. “The End of the Innocence,” Don Henley. Another song that is stuck in my head, for better or worse. Henley wrote it about the Reagan years (see a pattern here?), another autocratic presidency claiming to Make America Great Again (for Rich White Men) and the hell with everyone else: “Oh beautiful for spacious skies, but now those skies are threatening/They’re beating plowshares into swords for this tired old man that we elected king/Armchair warriors often fail/And we’ve been poisoned by these fairytales/The lawyers clean up all details/Since daddy had to lie.” How many times can you lose your innocence as an American? More than I thought possible.

8. “All American Made,” Margo Price. Price’s debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was one of the best albums of 2016, but this song is as yet unrecorded. Price sang it on an NPR Tiny Desk Concert on the morning of November 9, looking the way so many of us felt: Stunned, weary, heartsick. “All American Made” is about the bamboozlement of working people by deceitful politicians wrapped in the flag and carrying a bible: “1987 and I didn’t know it then/Reagan was selling weapons to the leaders of Iran/But it won’t be the first time, baby, and it won’t be the end/They were all American made.”

This is the kind of finely etched, honest sociopolitical narrative that Johnny Cash used to write, that Springsteen is still writing. It’s the kind of truth-to-power bluntness that will not endear Price to country radio, but that doesn’t seem to bother her. The set’s last song, “About to Find Out” from Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, was transformed from a rollicking takedown of a self-centered hipster to an acid-dripped direct hit on our new “leader”. And she didn’t even have to change a word: “You have many people fooled about your motivation/But I don’t believe your lies/You blow so much smoke it’s bound to make you choke/I see the snakes in both of your eyes/But you wouldn’t know class if it bit you in the ass/And you’re standing much too tall/You may have come so easy and happened so fast/But the harder they come, they fall.” At the end of the song, Price opened her blouse to reveal a T shirt reading “Icky Trump,” and wiped the tears from her eyes.

9. “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” Hamilton soundtrack. Hamilton has become a constant companion. It will be remembered as the Camelot of the Obama presidency. For cultural moment of the year, consider the Broadway cast of Hamilton making an eloquent curtain address to audience member Vice President-Elect Mike Pence (author of homophobic “electrocute the gay away” legislation, among other far-right lunacies), asking him to respect all Americans, whatever their race, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation or religion. The speech drew the pathetic wrath of the Twitter Troll in Chief, but then, what doesn’t? “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is the final song of Hamilton, in which creator Lin-Manuel Miranda refutes the saying “history is written by the winners.” Alexander Hamilton lost the duel, but in death, his legacy outshines “the fool who shot him.” However, in one of the more fitting ironies 2016 bestowed upon us, one of those legacies is — the Electoral College. Still, it’s the duty of anyone who loves democracy to call bullshit, loud and long, on whatever fact-free, fringe madness come from this already-chaotic new White House. We need to be the ones still standing to tell the story.

10. “My Girl ,” The Temptations. Another Soul Town epiphany from within a fog of post-election grief. “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day/And when it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.” I’ve played this song countless times since I first heard it on the radio as a girl. But now, I’m hearing something new. “I don’t need no money, fortune or fame/ I’ve got all the riches, baby, one man can claim.” “My Girl,” written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White, was released in December, 1964. The Vietnam War and protests against it were escalating. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed, but the Selma-to-Montgomery Marches were still three months away. African Americans in the South were still obstructed from voting. The Watts riots in Los Angeles were on the horizon. These were hard, desperate times. But here was a song that offered listeners a refuge from the pain and turmoil around them. It wasn’t about refusing to acknowledge the struggle; the narrator of “My Girl” sees the clouds and feels the cold and knows that money is short. But in his heart and soul, hope blooms and he is free. “My Girl” is a song about love remaking the lover’s world. Today, we have to remember that we still have the power to look at ugliness and imagine better things, to keep faith in sunshine on a cloudy day.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016



Ashes to Ashes



Please forgive the brevity of this post. I have a shoulder injury and typing is painful. But I wanted to say this:  Of all the mind-expanding, culture-leading magic tricks David Bowie performed in a career of serial rebirths, his last one is his most audacious. Blackstar is a self-penned epitaph, a swan song, a gift and a requiem all rolled into one. It’s heartbreaking, but also, in its meticulous planning, secrecy and sudden, sad unveiling, brilliant. In making his death a performance piece and a work of art, Bowie left on his own terms. And in doing so, he left us with one final example of how to turn and face the ch-changes. His last work both honors and transcends death.”Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings on “Lazarus”; the Starman is still waiting in the sky, whenever we need him. Of course David Bowie is eternal. Did you expect anything less?


Every one of the songs below, though completely different in genre and execution, sounds like it could have been recorded today. At his restless, transformational best, David Bowie led pop music to places it might not have gone without him. He contained multitudes and we will never hear the end of him.

Here’s Bowie doing an amazing “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes” on The Tonight Show in 1980. Johnny Carson’s intro is remarkable. He got it.

“Young Americans” live on The Dick Cavett Show in 1974, Luther Vandross leading the backing singers. My favorite Bowie song.

“Starman,” 1972, Top of the Pops. Ziggy Forever.

“Suffragette City” live, 1973 (from the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars movie)

Acoustic “Heroes” from Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit, Mountain View, CA, 1996.

“I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Oh, I’ll be free/Ain’t that just like me?” “Lazarus”, from Blackstar.

“I never wave bye-bye.” The original “Modern Love” video that ruled MTV in 1983.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

In Praise of Backup Singers

The documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom, about some of rock and R&B’s legendary backup singers, was the toast of Sundance this year. After ecstatic audience reactions, the film was picked up for distribution by Harvey Weinstein and is expected to run in theaters this summer  now playing in movie theaters.

Which is good news for the ladies (and gentlemen) who spend their careers making the artists out front sound even better. Backing vocalists are to stars what rhythm guitars are to leads;  they’re the melodic heartbeat of the song. The secret to great backing vocals is blending tone, pitch and pronunciation into one voice, one sound. You know great backing vocals when you hear them. And when you don’t. What would the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” be without those sexy “Got to roll me”‘s, or Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters” and “My Old School” without those lush female voices thawing Donald Fagan’s blase L.A. cool?  Can you imagine a world without Ikettes or Raelettes or Pips?  Or a world without Darlene Love, who sang backup (when she wasn’t singing lead) on almost everything that Phil Spector ever recorded and was an integral brick in that Wall of Sound?

I was a kid in the heyday of the backing singer, 1960s and ’70s. As much as I was inspired by chicks with guitars, like Fanny and Bonnie Raitt, I still daydreamed about being in the cool, tambourine-shaking choir behind Joe Cocker and Leon Russell on the “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour. This might have been an anti-feminist, Disney Princess kind of dream, but screw it. Nobody had to know that I envy-worshipped Rita Coolidge, the smoky voiced “Delta Lady” of Cocker’s ensemble, the queen of ’70s backup singers. Glossy straight black hair down to her waist, and she was dating Stephen Stills. Life was not fair!

In anticipation of Twenty Feet from Stardom, I’ve started thinking about some of my favorite backup singers. Any discussion of backing vocalists has to begin and end with Merry Clayton (one of the subjects of Twenty Feet from Stardom), who was a Raelette as well as a backing vocalist for everyone from Carole King on Tapestry to Lynyrd Skynyrd on “Sweet Home Alabama”. She’s best known, of course, as the backing vocalist on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” I’m not sure that you can really classify Clayton’s work on “Gimme Shelter” as backup singing;  her vocals were so anguished, so haunting and powerful, that she didn’t blend, she stood at the mic as an equal to Mick Jagger. And Jagger knew it. Listen to his “Whew!” of admiration in the background after she hits that scream on her third repetition of “Rape! Murder!”  Clayton’s voice is inextricably woven into the sound, the Apocalyptic mood, of the studio version of “Gimme Shelter”;  the Stones have employed some fine backup singers on tour over the years to sing Clayton’s part, but, to me, “Gimme Shelter” is diminished without her.

Here’s a neat video of Jagger and Clayton’s isolated vocal track on “Gimme Shelter”, from Let It Bleed.

The Stones probably did more to raise the stature of backing vocalists than any other band of their time. (It would be nice to think that they raised their pay as well, but the Stones were never known for being overly generous.) The 1972 double album Exile on Main Street, a ragged, passionate love letter to American blues, country, R&B and gospel, is both the Stones’ masterpiece and one of the greatest rock and roll albums, period.  It’s also backing vocal heaven. As on “Gimme Shelter,” the backing voices of Exile are an essential component of the overall feel of the record;  sung mainly by African American women, they’re as redolent of the American south as Mick Taylor’s slide guitar and the barrelhouse piano played by Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart.

Jagger has seldom sounded as genuinely horny as he does on “Tumbling Dice,” urged on by the bright, teasing come-ons of vocalists Clydie King and Venetta Fields. And on the gorgeous, cathartic “Let It Loose,” supported by a a gospel choir composed of King, Fields, Shirley Goodman, Tami Lynn, Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John) and Joe Green, Jagger bares an uncharacteristic vulnerability as he wails from the depths of romantic despair. I’ve been trying to figure out who the glistening, soothing soprano belongs to on the final “Let it loose, let it all come down” before the fade. But if that’s the last voice Jagger’s lost soul hears before the lights go out, maybe his salvation was nigh after all.

In the midst of all of those soul sisters on Exile, there was Kathi McDonald, a white girl from Washington state who sang the blues like nobody’s business. Kathi packed a whole history of backup singing into her resume:  she was an Ikette on “Come Together”, she was one of the wild women in Mad Dogs and Englishmen, she sang with Long John Baldry and Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. Like many backing vocalists, she released solo albums that failed to push her into the spotlight. But I think her greatest moment came on Exile, with her gritty backing vocals on “All Down the Line”. Pushing full throttle up, up, up into the top of her range, McDonald’s runaway train of a voice is both the embodiment of the song’s speeding locomotive imagery and the “sanctified girl with the sanctified mind”  whom Jagger is hoping to drink into bed.  Sadly, I came across Kathi McDonald’s obituary while researching this post;  she passed away in October, 2012, at the age of 64.

In 1974, Luther Vandross was a busy session singer when he got the call to go into a Philadelphia recording studio with David Bowie, who was making a soul album. The title track, “Young Americans,” features one of my favorite backing vocal performances ever. Vandross, who arranged the vocals, Ava Cherry and Robin Clark act as a gospel version of a Greek chorus, commenting between the lines of Bowie’s galloping rant through American post-war disillusionment. The energetic, chugging repetition of the line “Young American, young American, he wants the young American” becomes a part of the rhythm section itself. Vandross (who died in 2005) went on to R&B solo stardom, but his work on “Young Americans” might have been his most dazzling accomplishment. He made the whitest of white boys sound authentically funky.

Here’s an amazing video of David Bowie performing “Young Americans” (which had yet to be released) live on the Dick Cavett show in 1974.  On backing vocals left to right are Luther Vandross, Robin Clark, Warren Peace, the elegant, platinum-haired Ava Cherry and (in back) Diane Sumler and Anthony Hinton.

The backup singers on Aretha Franklin’s records aren’t musical accessories, they’re emotional necessities. When Aretha is sad, crying over the man that got away on “Ain’t No Way,” they’re crying with her (that’s Cissy Houston’s mournful soprano). When she’s giddy in love on “Chain of Fools,” they’re giddy too. When she’s giving that no-good man the business in “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” they’re standing right behind her, hands on hips. Aretha’s backing vocalists are more than her harmonizers, they’re her girlfriends, confessors and sisters — on many of her recordings, they’re her actual sisters, Carolyn and Erma Franklin. “I got a call the other day,” begins Aretha’s spoken intro to “Angel.” “It was my sister Carolyn saying, ‘Aretha, come by when you can. I’ve got something that I want to say …’ ”  “Angel” floats on Aretha’s soaring wails of loneliness, but it ends with a calming moment of sweet empathy from Carolyn and Erma: “He’ll be there, now don’t you worry/ Keep lookin’ and just keep cookin’,” and you can imagine them reaching across the kitchen table to take her hands and dry her tears. Aretha’s music is the sound of sisterhood, women supporting and comforting one another. One voice.

Between them, Aretha, Carolyn and Erma Franklin cooked up one of the most famous backing vocal riffs in pop music. “Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me , sock it to me, sock it to me , sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me/Respect!”

And this is where my backup vocal geekdom all started. Rita Coolidge, Pamela Polland, Donna Weiss, Claudia Lennear, Nicole Barclay (later of Fanny), Donna Washburn and a cast of thousands, backing Joe Cocker as “The Space Choir” on the 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishman tour. It still looks like crazy, dirty fun. Where’s my tambourine?

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013