Thursday, September 3, 2009

'Now Or Never' x 'Give In To Me'

Can I just say on a random note that as the weather cools, my heart yearns for yesteryears of Big Mike mixtapes? Oh, back in the days of '40 Bars of Terror'... yeah yeah, this nostalgia shit is ridiculous. I have a funny habit, don't know how common this is, of randomly replaying songs I haven't heard in years in my mind. Surprised I remembered all the words ("now what the fuck do y'all think I make music for?"). Great freestyle. As the soggy pentultimate track of Ice Cream Man goes, things ain't what they used to be.

Anyway, 'Now Or Never.' 'Now Or Never' is Elvis at his least Elvis. It was also his biggest hit ever, which tells you something about how conservative the music-buying public still was in 1961. Here's the song:

'Now Or Never' is this pathetic (but successful) attempt to connect with a bigger audience, an audience of Dean Martin and Mario Lanza fans. On it he successfully manages to sound like a vaguely European opera-singing bitch; with all the vibrato it's very easy to not recognize it's him. Substantively though, it's also quite a departure, because instead of the straight-shooting sexual (and let's say it, pretty sexy) advances for which we was known, we get this grossly manipulative creep who croons in his basso profundo that

Tomorrowwwww, will beeeeeeee too laaaaate
It's now or nevvvvvvvver
My loooooooooove won't wait

His 'love,' you see, can't wait. Unfortunately, it gets much worse; at one point he actually says that "just like a willow, we would cry an o-o-o-ocean/without true love, and sweet devo-o-otion." Yeah, or you would cry an ocean if you couldn't get your rocks off. The picture you get in your mind is of this skeevy European playboy on a 50s cruise reciting cheesy pickup lines that just may have worked back then. The interesting thing here is that, in retreating into this family-friendly, sexually conservative mask, he's actually getting more sexist and sexually crass; the song's a disingenuous solicitation of a pump-and-dump ridiculously disguised in terms of almost courtly love. And all this, incredibly, while he's recording some of his best and sexually frankest stuff ever for the real fans, on a horribly under-regarded album (Elvis Is Back) that would sell less than the abysmal soundtracks for Blue Hawaii and G.I. Blues. So to get really schematic, Elvis briefly retreats from his more subversive, sexually honest, and at times downright feminist work (note how convincingly he sings about female sexual desire on 'Fever' and 'Girl Next Door Went A'Walking,' where he manages to make "settl[ing] down for life" sound incredibly dirty) to put out this international chart-topping single that, on its face, avoids flouting traditional mores while completely embracing very 50s sexist notions of gender roles.

One of the most disingenuous moves on 'Now or Never' is when Elvis says that "I've spent a lifetime/waiting for the right time." See, he needs to do you now, tonight, because he's been waiting his whole life! For you! How romantic! Don't contribute any further to this man's sexual deprivation! Er, I mean, his deprivation from your sweet devotion, which, like a willow, he would cry over if he couldn't have. Well, I was listening to Dangerous a couple weeks ago, and I happened on this line:

I've spent a lifetime waiting for someone
Don't try to understand me,
Simply do the things I say

Coincidence? No, not at all. What Michael has done here, in his attempt to broaden his marketability (by displaying what a straight guy he is), is reinterpret 'Now Or Never' as an exercise in brutal honesty. Where Elvis is forced to erect, no pun intended, this subterfuge of utter nonsense, Michael can just say - in fact, the climate encourages him to do so in 1991, to prove his heteronormativity - exactly what he means and wants. (Namely, Michael's spent a lifetime without sex; now is your time to do your duty, save this desperate soul and go fuck Michael.) Which does two things - it turns 'Now Or Never' into something a whole lot less manipulative and dishonest, but it also makes it infinitely more chilling. Because what Michael plainly wants is for some stranger to come follow instructions and service his anorexic pasty ass. (Go on girl! Quench that desire!) Whereas Elvis, besides not being half as candid about it, clearly believes, in part, his own bullshit. Even when trying to be some suave opera-crooning schmuck, he still has a heart. Michael... well, Michael is suffering from such a severe case of deferred sexual discovery that he doesn't have much of a heart left:

You always knew just how to make me cry

And never did I ask you questions why
It seems you get your kicks from hurting me
Dont try to understand me
Because your words just aren't enough

That frigid whore! Getting her kicks from hurting Michael by... not fucking him. No, words will not be enough tonight. Or as Michael asks on 'In The Closet,' "if you want it, then why don't you taste it?" The world is so unfair to Michael on Dangerous. People tripping on him when they should be worrying about world hunger, and teachers who can't teach, and drug addiction. (Oh wait.) Girlfriends who go cheat on him with his brothers. His brothers sleeping with his girlfriends. That neighbor who he asked for a favor and told him later on 'Jam.' Women who pray to Buddha and then sing Talmud songs. Confusing! Contradictory! Worst of all, girls who say they want it but won't suck his dick. What has come of all the people? Have we lost love? Of what it's about?

What's telling is that, as Michael is being pushed out of his choirboy comfort zone by the demands of the "do we really want to give our cash to a gay pop star who's turning funny colors" market, he's still Michael at his most Michael. 'Give In To Me' isn't some forced bullshit like 'Now Or Never'; it sounds like something he's wanted to sing all his life. You often hear Michael and Prince linked in this good guy/bad guy dichotomy; I find that very odd. To me the dichotomy is Elvis and Michael, with Michael as the bad or incredibly fucked-up guy. For, when Michael interprets Elvis, borrows from Elvis, what does he take? Elvis the creeper. Elvis the sell-out Mario Lanza imitator who isn't really Elvis. (Of course, Michael also did a 'Heartbreak Hotel,' and on that, instead of the hotel being a place for brokenhearted lovers and victims of breakups to go, it's where "every girl that I knew" is, where the "wicked women" sleep. Elvis spends a career fearing, often quite morbidly, loss of attachment; Michael spends a career running from attachment.) Of course, this is not an argument against Michael, though it may be one for you if you like your pop life-affirming and uplifting; it's actually an argument in favor of him on the grounds that no other singer so brilliantly sang about man's misanthropic, misogynistic, and violent impulses. Elvis is pop's great lover and Michael pop's great loner.

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