December 6, 2010


Hollywood Singing

From the way pop songs talk about Hollywood, you'd swear that music and movies were bitter enemies. From "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" to "Burn Hollywood Burn" and beyond, songs frame Hollywood as Babylon — a place of limitless decadence, waste and superficiality. (As opposed to music, of course. Music is a totally honest expression of someone's inner essence, no matter how it's made, or so it would like you to believe.)

Michael Bublé's "Hollywood" fits snugly in that tradition — an indignant, nearly moralistic indictment of shallow movie/TV culture, narrated from a (Canadian) outsider's perspective, but laced with insider jokes. The line about how "you can swing from vine to vine," for instance, has to be a joke about the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine, right near the headquarters of Bublé's label Reprise Records.

Bublé made his bones as a pop singer in a West Coast tradition—the idiom of Reprise founder Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and, most of all, Bobby Darin (one version of the "Hollywood" single, in fact, has "Mack the Knife" as its B-side)—but he's not the sort to burn Hollywood with its own set of matches. So his "Hollywood" is basically a new wave song. Musically, it's a cousin to Squeeze's "Pulling Mussels From the Shell"—from its basic groove to Bublé's phrasing to the ascending runs at the beginning of each verse of "Hollywood" and the bridge of "Mussels." Its lyrics, though, hammer home the contrast between "Hollywood" (home of idolatry, and of the rock stars who conveniently rhyme with both "caviar" and "car") and the homily Bublé drops at the end: "keep on loving what is true... find it in yourself."

Maybe the wickedness of Tinseltown, though, is that it erases the self. That's the subject of the "Hollywood" Madonna took a stab at recording back in 2003 — a song that takes almost for granted that there's something seductive and evil about the place.

"I lost my memory in Hollywood," she sings, and later "I've lost my reputation bad and good," and then "I'm bored with the concept of right and wrong." Well, memory is what makes reputation, and right and wrong is what makes bad and good, right? What she's lost is meaningless cognition in a city of sensation--the lyrics mention smell and vision and tactile sensation (another car, this one with its top erotically off) and even the sound of heavy-rotation songs on the radio, but of course no taste.

So what's missing in her Hollywood? The giveaway is another little allusion, when she mutters "this bird has flown," accompanied by the chirping bird sounds that also turn up at the song's beginning and end. She's invoking the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" — and, by extension, the idea of the Beatles' wood-and-wire groundedness in human experience. ("Hollywood" is more built on the sound of acoustic guitars than virtually any other Madonna single, and that passage is a breakdown to just the guitar track.) It's the old pop-as-authenticity, movies-as-fakery saw.

That was a particularly mixed message coming from Madonna, who had built her entire (unloseable) reputation on displaying one obviously constructed persona after another, and had spent years trying to break into movies, without a lot of success. (And that may be why "Hollywood" was her first single not to chart in America in a long time; Americans do love our moralism, but love to hate self-contradicting moralism.)