Clothes Become Her

Even when she’s finally willing to wear something that can be discerned as clothing in her new music video, Miley Cyrus proves she’s a better singer than dresser

Miley Cyrus (Malinbu) 1

By Mao Shan Wang

Unlike many of her fans, I have never considered Miley Cyrus much of an influencer; at least not in the style stakes. You see, I have a problem with women who fashion themselves as style icons but do not use clothes. Or, use very little of them. What was Ms Cyrus wearing in Wrecking Ball? Underwear and, in parts, nothing—she had more fibres in her lashes than on her body. What fashion statement did that make?

Maybe it was what she was riding that counted, such as the wrecking ball and, in the Bangerz tour, the hot dog. Free of outrageous props in her new video for the single Malibu, Ms Cyrus needed fashion to carry a message: I’m no longer the trollop that I once appeared to be; I am again a girl-next-door (thinking of marrying the completely not deviant Liam Hemsworth). Or, as Wendy Williams recently raved in her eponymous show, “cleaned-up Miley”.

Miley Cyrus (Malinbu) 2

I am not sure if a scrubbed Princess of Twerk can be transformed into a High Priestess of Fashion, but Ms Cyrus seems to be trying. In Malibu, she was in no less than nine outfits, with one strange voluminous, off-shoulder dress that was made even more capacious with the puffiest sleeves and widest train you ever saw—more cloth in one outfit that everything she ever wore in her entire singing career.

So what does it mean now that ex-Hannah Montana is clothed? I don’t know about you, but when I first saw the MV of Malibu, I thought it was Forever 21 that had an arrangement with her wardrobe mistress. Who would have thought Billy Ray’s hitherto provocatively dressed daughter would take to a style more akin to Nashville’s off-stage Juliette Barnes’s?

Miley Cyrus (Malinbu) 3

I understand that Ms Cyrus’s main audience is young, school-going, and in need of an idol that can provide dress ideas for classes (in the US, they don’t wear uniforms), going to the mall, traipsing the beach, as Ms Cyrus did in Malibu. Ordinariness for every day seems to be the main message. Like you, she need not rely on the weird and crude to be likable.

Her choice of tiered frilled frock, bra top and harem pants, cropped funnel-neck pullover and bikini bottom, lightweight sundress, itsy-bitsy tube top and shorts, beribboned sweater-top and diaphanous shorts, and more sweater-and-briefest-briefs pairing meant that she could make herself more relatable to the Republican-loving girls that now could be her core listeners and admirers. It is likely that this is a Gaga-esque, post-meat-dress sartorial breakthrough; this is also the singer-songwriter at her most heartfelt—no frightfully cute or wildly sexy outfit to distract, or worse, augment. She is not wrecking anymore.

Miley Cyrus (Malinbu) 4

To be sure, Malibu is not that bad even when many critics think otherwise. For sure, it’s inoffensive, which, when weighed against the Miley Cyrus repertoire, may be the first of her songs that would be welcome at Fairprice. This is clearly conceived for a summer release. Close your eyes and you can feel the sea breeze (or “birds catching the wind”), even taste the salt in the air. The singing is so earnest and un-bombastic that you’re strangely drawn to her confessional: “I never would’ve believed you if three years ago you told me I’d be here writing this song”—a reference, no doubt, to her 2013 break-up with fiancé-once-more Liam Hemsworth.

There’s a sweetness that may not be immediately digestible until you open your eyes and see her—seemingly sans makeup—frolicking on the beach, hand clutching a flying bouquet of balloons, all the while the folk-poppy guitar jangle remind you this is rather serious, songwriter stuff.

Miley Cyrus (Malinbu) 5

This cleaned-up Miley Cyrus was, in fact, already seen in the past years in The Backyard Sessions (to support her Happy Hippie Foundation)—YouTube posts of her and her band doing some of her favourite covers, which include the impressive rendition of Dolly Parton’s Jolene and James Shelton’s Lilac Wine, with no hint of Auto-Tune at work, only colouring that sometimes makes me think of Amy Winehouse.

In these sessions, she wore a sleeveless skin-toned lace top and a no-nonsense black skirt. Her hair was tied into a casual chignon, as though she had just pulled the curls into shape before hitting the mike. You sense that she wanted you to hear her voice rather than be distracted by her dress. And she certainly wasn’t going to sit astride anything ball-like or phallic.

Miley Cyrus (Malinbu) 6

The pared-down Miley Cyrus continues her Trump-supporter look in the cover of the latest issue of Billboard magazine on which a pink dress would not look out of place in Alice in Wonderland or downtown Denver. Is Ms Cyrus reprising her Hannah Montana look or embracing her country roots? I’m not sure. Either way, there’s no mistaking the grassroot aesthetics of her new-found, clothes-galore wardrobe. 

This does not seem like a one-off. But how long will she stick to the normal-girly before another clear plastic of a dress, or bits of straps as top come acalling? To me, one thing will never change: those blemish-bits of tattoos on her arms and hands that, despite the Sunday church-worthy dresses, suggest Ms Cyrus needs a bath.

Photos: screen grabs of Miley Cyrus’s Malibu video from YouTube 

Model Behaviour: Soda Pop Peace Offering

Kendall Jenner Pepsi 1

Pepsi wants their cake and eat it too. Or, maybe, a can of soda and drink it too. In their latest commercial, they’ve engaged model du jour Kendall Jenner to do what Ms Jenner does: model. That is all rather swell until suddenly, in the commercial, she leaves her assignment at hand to join what appears to be a protest. That’s when things get a little iffy.

Encouraged by a passerby who communicates by tilting his head, she abandons what we assume to be paid assignment to join the action on the street. And why are they protesting? We don’t know. Anyway, Ms Jenner goes through a protesting crowd (inexplicably young and attractive), reaches the front line, and confronts a row of policemen. Instead of raising her hand in defiance, she singles out a handsome law enforcer and offers him a Pepsi. Peace, as it turns out, can be had in a can.

Social media blared with disapproval after the commercial was posted on Pepsi’s YouTube channel a day ago. Loudest was the charge that a “privileged, white” woman saving America from its civil-rights woes slights the real attempt to resolve race issues that plague the US. But is this really so startling—or new—when white America, on screen, has always saved the world, if not herself?

Kendall Jenner Pepsi 2

Pepsi pitches its latest commercial as a “global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony.” And how “global” might that be? Or how “different”? Include an Asian cellist and a photographer in a hijab as key players among the throng of people with no anger or angst registered on their faces and you get diversity? If this is meant to reference recent confrontations, such as the Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, last year, how will a recognisable model who, according to Forbes, earned USD17 million last year (and continues to make more with this Pepsi commercial), diminish the anger that still simmers?

One of the earliest models to appear in a Pepsi ad was Cindy Crawford in 1992. In that version, she was all sex symbol, emerging from a vermilion sports car in the presence of two young boys who would become completely mesmerised by her sipping from a can of Pepsi. A sexy woman using her sex appeal to sell a product: that was it.

We’re now living in different times. A model’s beauty alone isn’t enough; she has to tell us that she’s socially aware and willing to go out there to take up a cause, even in the middle of a professional engagement, photographer and crew be damned. You see, the reality-TV-star-turn-model has a sense of right and wrong, and she can temper the tempest with an effervescent drink.

Kendall Jenner Pepsi 3

The Pepsi campaign may shout ‘Live for Now’ but its protagonist does not seize the moment since she, unlike the cellist and the photographer, has time to change out of her clothes to look like she could be a part of the crowd. When social justice calls, blond wig and Vamp-like lip colour are not protest material, nor metallic mini-dress, sheer duster coat, hoop-earrings, and black killer heels.

Suddenly she’s no longer a glamour puss; she’s a model who walks out of her work to follow a functioning conscience. That means joining the marching masses in nude make-up and in a cropped jacket, white T-shirt, and tri-tone denim jeans—an off-duty-model-pretending-to-be-an-ordinary-girl look that is completed by the perch of sunglasses on her head.

Like Diana Prince, she instantly changes from a fashion plate to a figure of justice. Only thing is, Kendall Jenner is no Wonder Woman. And Pepsi is no Coke—it can’t teach the world to sing, and definitely not in perfect harmony.

Screen grabs: YouTube/Pepsi

Update (6 April 2017): Pepsi has pulled this ad from circulation. It’s no longer available on its YouTube channel

Still Carrie Bradshaw

SJP narrates for Vogue

In season 4, episode 2 (also called ‘The Real Me’) of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw said, “When I first moved to New York and I was totally broke, sometimes I would buy Vogue instead of dinner. I felt it fed me more.” Vogue was so much a part of Ms Bradshaw’s life that it had a cameo role in the six-season, 94-episode TV series; leading to an episode in season 4 called ‘A Vogue Idea’. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Carrie Bradshaw’s alter ego Sarah Jessica Parker was asked to narrate the e-series The History of Fashion in Vogue for the title’s online edition.

Vogue and Carrie Bradshaw were so intertwined that despite the shorts’ title credit that read “narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker”, the voice-over sure sounds like Ms Bradshaw. In the first of what Vogue calls “a series of ‘five points’ videos by decades”, SJP opened the peek into the late 1800s and the 1900s by saying “Start-up wasn’t part of the vocabulary of 1892, when Arthur Baldwin Turnure started a weekly journal of fashion and society called Vogue.” This could have been “Once upon a time, an English journalist came to New York…” of the debut of SATC, minus the close-up of the text appearing on the computer screen and the vibraphone tune of the main theme before that.

Sex and the City was very much a self-narrated account of Carrie Bradshaw’s New York life, which included three of her friends. The gossipy unfolding gave the series much of its authenticity and intimacy, and it made Carrie Bradshaw the protagonist so many rooted for, even when her neurosis and self-inflicted pain were sometimes too much to bear. That voice, that pitch, that urgency—all so identifiable as prelude to Sex and the City’s celebration of sex-as-you-wish liberty and blatant consumption that even on a program about the history of one of the world’s most recognisable publications you sense that maybe there’s going to be who slept with who after who bought what.

Thirty seconds into the first episode of Sarah Jessica Parker Narrates 1892-1900s in Vogue, SJP says that Vogue was a “journal of society, fashion, and the ceremonial side of life.” She may be referring to another era far removed from the one she’s in, but she could be describing the world of Carrie Bradshaw, minus the sexual escapades and tearful heartbreaks. When SJP revealed with such wonder that “crackerjack” Condé Nast purchased the publication in 1809, she could have been referring to Capote Duncan (the publishing executive who nearly bedded Charlotte York), or Mr Big.

These short videos were conceived to celebrate Vogue’s 125th year, but they’re not exactly a broad look at the past. In the face of debates over whether Vogue is relevant, they only serve to remind us that the magazine has come this far and will go further, much further.

Screen grab from vogue.com

The Quiet Master

Film | In a new untitled documentary, the fashion insider’s designer Azzedine Alaïa is revealed, but only just

Azzedine AlaiaAzzedine Alaïa at his drafting table. Photo: Joe McKenna/Consulate Film

There are designers and there are designers, but none so unconcerned with the drama of the fashion world and its pursuit of excess as Azzedine Alaïa. His refusal to genuflect to the fashion system, whether in Paris or elsewhere, sticking to his own world in his atelier in the Marais, a historic part of the capital in the 4th and 5th arrondissement, makes him as much a mystery as a marvel.

In this new, 26-minute, black and white short made by the Scottish stylist Joe McKenna, considered one of the most respected in the business, who once published his own now-very-collectible and hard-to-find, two-issue (1992 and 1998) magazine called Joe’s, Mr Alaïa is put in the spotlight, but it is friends, models, journalists who are doing the shining. Filmed over a few years in the designer’s atelier during Mr McKenna’s free time, the film feels like an extended trailer than a major oeuvre, snap shot than biography.

Yet, it’s a pleasurable film, if only because there is no moving picture material out there on Mr Alaïa. Any reveal is better than none. Much has been said of the designer’s skill—how he drafts and cuts his own patterns, how, at one time, he even sewed the dresses himself—and why those who wear his designs become life-long fans, but very little is offered about the processes behind those undeniably beautiful clothes, or about the thinking of a quietly defiant man. In this respect, we still know very little of Mr Alaïa’s motivation and inspiration.

Azzedine Alaïa Couture 2011Two of the outfits from the couture 2011 show that appeared in the film. Photos: Azzedine Alaïa

Although the lens trails its subject, the camera does not capture Mr Alaïa saying anything to it. Instead, designer Nicholas Ghesquiere (the only male interviewee), stylist Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele (who styled Anna Wintour’s first US Vogue cover in 1988 that saw a Christian Lacroix couture top paired with jeans), the ex-stylist, ex-fashion editor (British Tatler and Vogue), and now architect Sophie Hicks, still-practising stylists Grace Coddington and Katie Grand, journalists Cathy Horyn, Vanessa Friedman, and Suzy Menkes, and models Naomi Campbell (who calls Mr Alaïa “papa”) and Veronica Webb do the talking.

These are people who doubtlessly and ardently admire him and are intensely protective. Ms Campbell even revealed that Mr Alaïa took her in after she lost her possessions during a sojourn in Paris in 1989, and that he still avails a room in his residence to her. Although we’re told that Mr Alaïa “has a temper”, like many passionate artists, we’re not shown an instance other than his throwing a hanger at an assistant, when he lost composure to rage. Or, if fury or self-control has influenced his designs. Through these intimates, we are seduced into believing Mr Alaïa has no shortcoming.

This is a film strictly for followers of Mr Alaïa’s work—a celebration of the female form and an extolment of sexiness with none of the perverse expression seen in fashion today. It is also for fashion culture buffs who may be thrilled to see some rare footages of old Azzedine Alaïa shows (“another echelon” for Cathy Horyn)  in which supermodels of the ’90s gravitated (somewhere in there is also the now-reclusive Grace Jones). It sometimes feels like a knowing nod among friends for more friends rather than a vivid disclosure for the uninitiated, of the man and his creative output. And a substantiation of the already known fact that very much of Azzedine Alaïa’s designs start at the drafting table—a mark of a true couturier.

Four Words: Fashion’s New Fave

wnnie-harlow-for-i-am-an-immigrant

I am an immigrant.” As simple as that, repeated until the message (hopefully) drives home. Fashion, as we have seen, isn’t afraid to be political. And fashion folks are not afraid of facing up to a certain political climate. Defiance can have an attractive look.

Individuals from the fashion industry, “at the urging of W magazine”, was filmed between shows during the just-concluded New York Fashion Week to utter those four words. These include models such as Natasha Poly, Doutzen Kroes, Jordan Dunn, and Winnie Harlow (above); stylists Edward Enninful and Grace Coddington; photographers Craig McDean, Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin and Mario Sorrenti; and designers Maxwell Osborne & Dao-Yi Chow, and Diane Von Furstenburg.

It is a very diverse cast of players, showing that xenophobia is not an immigrant. Bravo.

Photo: screen grab of I am an Immigrant video on YouTube

One Yellow That’s Ochre Of Fierceness

Beyonce in yellowScreen grab of Beyoncé from the trailer of HBO’s Lemonade

By Raiment Young

Over the weekend, when I learned that Beyoncé’s new “visual album” was going to be called Lemonade, I shuddered; I really did. I am not receptive to the painful cliché of what one can do with lemons if given those citrus fruits, and I feared that somehow Beyoncé was going to lead me down that path. And true enough, she did. Beyoncé’s sixth studio album is called Lemonade apparently because during a family get-together, seen in one of the videos, husband Jay Z’s 90-year-old grandmother was heard saying, “I was served lemons but I made lemonade.” The grand-daughter-in-law, inspired, was then going to show us how she makes America’s favourite summer drink.

I thought yellow was going to be pervasive, a chromatic motif that will be used to tell stories in the videos-as-narrative. One frock stood out, but it is not in the yellow of lemons. The dress, part of a wardrobe that prompted Glamour to say the costumes of the videos were “beyond fierce”, is of a yellow that seemed to have been mixed with dirt, an ochre. There is certainly no sunshine in it, although to be more positive, it is close to the yellow of Van Gough’s sunflowers.

I was definitely not thinking of ribbons, birds, submarines, or bikinis. What did come to my mind was the mustard-hued poultice that was once offered to me to calm the painful sting of a jellyfish. What I also saw were the monks’ robes during the ordination of a friend in a temple in Nakhon Sawan, Thailand. These robes were once only made of used or discarded cloth. They were boiled with vegetable matter such as bark, flowers and leaves before being stained with spices such as saffron. I wonder if Beyoncé would make nasi kuning if life handed her turmeric.

What’s with R&B stars and yellow anyway? Just last year, during the Med gala in May, Rihanna wore a monstrosity of a Guo Pei dress in the shade of omelettes. In another era, Whitney Houston, too, was never averse to eye-popping yellow: she wore that aureate figure-hugging Marc Bouwer dress for Whitney: The Concert for a New South Africa in 1994. Could there be a visual advantage in donning a colour that can represent the sun or warn of the presence of poison?

Roberto Cavalli AW 2016Roberto Cavalli’s dress as seen on the catwalk during the recent autumn/winter 2016/17 presentation in Milan. Photo: Roberto Cavalli

Lemonade is a “visual album” (Beyoncé’s second, in fact) and that means it’s accompanied by full-length videos—every track, here, 12 of them, gets its story told in moving pictures, all made seamless by the reading of the poetry of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. Clearly, the visual album is conceived to appeal to a visual generation that prefers to see a song than hear it. For such an album to be even more engaging, Beyoncé has to play up the fashion aspect of the presentation. Fresh from launching her new fashion line, the athleisure-centric Ivy Park, with Topshop, Queen Bey has to prove her worthiness as fashion royalty, even when she’s holding sway in the court of celebrity style.

The dress that her fans have been raving about is a seven-tier, off-shoulder gown designed by the two-season-old Peter Dundas for Roberto Cavalli. This crush-pleated dress that swings with distracting shagginess as you walk is not easy to wear, and especially less so if you do not have the girth of a walking stick. Beyoncé is a voluptuous woman, a tad too curvy for an essentially linear dress held up by straps that are as fine as strings. What are those two misshapen globes squashed through the opening below the neckline? Mrs Knowles-Carter, I’m afraid, you look like you’ve squeezed into one leg of a lion dancer’s pants!

The Cavalli dress appears in the video of the reggae-tinged Hold Up in which Beyoncé emerges from a building that looks like our old City Hall, with water gushing behind her and wind blowing in front. Much of the rest of the film sees her prancing in a sound stage dressed as an urban neighbourhood. As she smiles-seethes-sings through the video, she strikes what catches her fancy with a baseball bat that identifies itself as “hot sauce”. There’s considerable destruction while sprightly explosions bloom behind her. No one around her is bothered by what appears to be escalating into a war zone. Here you have a swaggering gladiolus in full anti-social, crime-abetting behaviour, and what is it for? She suspects (“something don’t feel right”) a man she loves cheated on her. As a consequence, the woman can’t tell “what’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy”. The woman is livid.

If Lemonade is holding the glass up and speaking for women, is it also a collective reprimand disguised as a visually rich music video? And is Beyoncé dressed to reflect how women want to be clothed when they wish to make a point angrily? When cross, wear yards and yards of floating fabric? Still, I don’t get what she’s trying to say with that yellow. If the crazy popularity of Vetements’s DHL T-shirt is anything to go by, there’s no fighting this colour most of you call cheerful.

Work. Twerk. Jerk. How They Irk!

Rihana WorkScreen grab of Rihanna, beer in hand, dancing in her new music video for the single Work

Launched last month, the music video of Rihanna’s January-released single Work comes in two flavours: an “explicit” film of a sleazy, smoky, sepia-shaded club and a clean one staged in a small studio designed as a living room set and saturated with light so pink that it would not be out of place in a dream sequence of a Teochew opera. On music television channels of the West, you get both played back-to-back, which result in a two-in-one that lasts about seven-and-a-half minutes. MTV Asia has been broadcasting the safe and sanitised (by Rihanna’s standards, anyway) second version—no surprise there, and that was what we saw. However, a search on YouTube will quickly turn up the muck many would relegate to the heap of morally bankrupt.

Firstly, is Work even a song? The monotonous chorus with the repetition of “work” six times (followed by “dirt”, also half-a-dozen times) sounds like it’s destined to be a digital resident of a smartphone where it would forever be banished as a ringtone. Sure, one-syllable-word repeat is the preferred formula in hip-hop musical phrasing, but it’s odd that Rihanna would take this route when Taylor Swift was miles ahead with “Cause the player’s gonna play, play, play, play, play. And the hater’s gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate”. At least Ms Swift’s Shake it Off is catchy. Rihanna slur-sings in such a droning and unintelligible manner that a lyric search was necessary to determine that “der, der, der, der, der, der” is really “dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt”! (“Work, although sounded like “wer”, we could make out because of the title). Audibly clear it is that tunefulness is not a present-day requisite for successful song writing.

And the video: surely a club awash with alcohol (but oddly no bottle opener since a guy had to use his teeth!), with guests ready to roll a joint and gyrate to mimic frottage (or intercourse, you figure) —even one called, without charm, The Real Jerk—is no longer fascinating enough to serve as setting when much of what’s on Vevo these days are a lot more arousing. Okay, so few in music-video making aim for an Oscar for production design, but this MV needs, well, more than a little bit of work. Even the chemistry between Rihanna and guest rapper Drake—looking like, to paraphrase Iago in Othello, “prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts”—can’t lift the lame choreography and weak twerking from encouraging a big loud yawn.

Rihanna and Drake and crewRihanna and Drake posing with MV director X (between them) posted on her Snapchat

So let’s look at the clothes, an area that, Rihanna fans would enthusiastically state, does not disappoint. She arrives in a car at The Real Jerk. She emerges from the black vehicle, wearing a fur hoodie that looks like a pink part two of the Guo Pei gown that she wore to the Met Gala last year. She moves mysteriously towards the club entrance, joining no queue to be admitted. It should be stated at this point that there’s really no narrative in the video, just a mise-en-scène, which, typically, is not defined.

Inside, the coat is shed, and the camera pans from her nearly-bare right foot up to her face. It does so with just the right speed for you to take in those manicured toes in the palest pink polish, made visible by a barely-there sandal held together with spaghetti straps that spiral up her lower limp to just behind the knee, from which you see other straps—more like garter and garter belt—worn not to hold up any stocking but for femoral adornment. The view of this leg, you’ll soon realise, is made possible by the single, hip-high slit of the dress she wears—a round-neck, ankle-length T-shirt in knitted mesh that, once the camera pulls back, reveals wide vertical stripes in the colours that recall some South American flags. Under that, a set of similarly-coloured bikini covers her (concealment optional) privates.

A Rihanna look is incomplete without accessories. Apart from the said sandal and garter and kindred belt, she wears an inordinate amount of rings, and some bracelets, as well as a three-band leather choker with a huge hoop in the centre that seems to echo Givenchy’s version for keys. The sum effect, to our untrained eyes, appears Rastafarian, an aesthetic not alien to the Barbadian singer, and possibly one she’s exceeding pleased with since, in the video, she seems to be enjoying dancing before a full-length mirror in full self-admiration. What would Rastas, who mostly “live a peaceful life, needing little material possessions” (according to barbados.org), think of the Bitch (who) Better Have Money?

This Not-So-Blue Monday

Orkestra Obsolete

By Raiment Young

Thanks to BBC Arts, I was able to listen to a remake, not remix, of Blue Monday, the biggest UK 12” single of all time, and, playing for seven-and-half minutes, one of the longest. This new version by the little known and almost mysterious band Orkestra Obsolete is the stuff that makes my spine tingle. Possibly New Order’s best-known track, Blue Monday was an important part of my musical education in the early ’80s that had nothing to do with Michael Jackson. It was also the second part of my initiation into electronic music after Kraftwek, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and Depeche Mode.

And it’s been awhile since something so aurally captivating has filled by work space. Blue Monday and so many ’80s indie-dance-rock have been subjected to such frequent runs through software manipulation such as Digital DJ that, no matter how imaginative the remixer, much of the result sounds the same. Orkestra Obsolete, as its name suggests, brought a piece of modern music back to a time when software was not part of the line-up in a musician’s arsenal. The point in time is 1933, and the instruments used are those available that year.

Orkestra Obsolete 2

The result is music that has the lushness of yore, but a vibe of the present. Unfair a comparison it may be, but it does remind me of the 1997 ‘tribute’ album El Baile Alemán by Sēnor Cocunut, aka Uwe Schmidt (also Atom Heart), considered one of Germany’s leading composers of electronic music. While El Baile Aleman’s Latin-flavoured sound is poles apart from (and more ‘exotic’ than) Orkestra Obsolete’s experimental output, both share the same sense of analogue adventurism that is oddly compelling.

According to pop lore, Blue Monday was the result of the testing of a new drum machine—the Oberheim DMX. The band, however, claimed that the song was written as an encore track to be played at the end of concerts, during which fans had always left disappointed because New Order did not do encores. Lead singer Bernard Sumner once told the media, “I don’t really see it as a song. I see it as a machine to make people dance”, further corroborating the drum-machine test theory. Whatever may have been the case, Blue Monday went on to be a Brit pop/disco anthem identified with the ’80s, just as Soft Cell’s camp remake of Tainted Love was and still is.

Orkestra Obsolete 3

Despite its success in the UK and, later, in the US, Blue Monday did not really catch on in Singapore until Zouk’s Mambo Night, hosted by DJ Adam Low. When I first heard it during those retro-themed sessions, I was dismayed that it was considered a retro track, yet thrilled that I was able to dance to it under the immersive sound system that was part of Zouk’s heady appeal. To most Zouk-goers, Blue Monday was too indie and off-key sounding to be mainstream-danceable. I wonder what they’d think of Orkestra Obsolete’s take today.

Another aspect of the band’s appeal is the music video released by the BBC. This noir-ish recording has the mood and the seduction of a fashion film, possibly one by Prada (and Wes Anderson?). The band members in suit and bow tie, too, look like they’re part of Prada’s world, with eye masks that would win the approval of Green Hornet fans. Orkestra Obsolete has possibly created the soundtrack to Muccia’s next show. As it’s sung in the song, “now I stand here waiting”.

Hello, Thank You, Adele

Adele Hello

Screen grab of Adele’s new music video for Hello

By Luo Zhao Mo

After a three-year hiatus, Adele is back.

This is what the Crossover Project should have bankrolled, but never did. Too busy with their financial shenanigans, the backers couldn’t tell a good voice from a feeble one. Scantiness versus substance: there was never a choice. They had just one woman bent on going to California. That was the only crossover they’ve ever got. And, yes, a Singaporean Chinese woman assuming the role of a geisha, that too.

Adele’s new single Hello is a reminder that in singing, you really start with the voice. And a star sings alone, not as a chorus part. And it is the singing, rather than skin, that shows flair and capacity. Adele is, of course, nowhere near Ms Crossover Project. She sings big, unhindered by the coverings—or lack of them—beneath her neck. Her voice commands and she does not pull back from its dominance. You hear her loud, and you hear her clearly, the musical accompaniment the rolling hills, above which the firmament of voice soars.

Truth be told, I have never really paid much attention to Adele until Karl Lagerfeld, in 2012, said she “is a little too fat”. Then I saw her performing Rolling in the Deep at the Grammy’s and winning 6 awards that night. And I told myself that she’s not more heavy-set than some American singers (Rebel Wilson, I’m thinking of you). Then came Skyfall, and the body is really secondary to the voice.

It has to be said that despite the body-shaming she has received, Adele has mostly dressed appropriately to her size. In the Hello video, she took a risk in donning a shaggy coat, but it’s one Carine Roitfeld would have approved, and it contrasted nicely with the printed scarf, worn without any fuss around her neck. There’s nothing edgy about them, just like the flip phone she used. The combo is a nice change from her usual all-back outfits and affirms that unstructured elegance and great voice can be a perfect pair.

Adele’s much-awaited new album 25 will be released globally on 20 November

Cause A Ruckus: The Fashion Of An Evangelist

Sun Ho in China Wine

Screen grab of Sun Ho’s 2007 music video China Wine

Accompanying her husband to court this morning, Ho Yeow Sun, aka Sun Ho, aka Geisha, was dressed in a grey, tweedy pantsuit. She tried to avoid the glare of camera lenses; her face half-covered by hair that was streaked gold, but not quite blond. Holding the hand of spouse Kong Hee—charged with criminal breach of trust and falsification of accounts, and found guilty—Ms Ho looked more like an off-duty, fashionably attired secretary than a pastor and co-founder of a mega-church, let alone a pop evangelist.

But evangelise with pop music she did, a move her church, City Harvest, felt was effective in reaching out to the “unchurched”. City Harvest services are known for their pop-concert vim and visual, and an enthusiastic and responsive audience. It is not unreasonable to assume that Ms Ho has a part in devising the musical approach and direction of the church’s ministry. She was, after all, head of the church’s “Creative Department” (from 1992 to 2001), and she herself and Kong Hee (who plays the guitar) had led many of the rousing, rather than rocking, services that brought members of the audience to a euphoric high.

Sun Ho in China Wine 2Sun Ho’s navel-baring outfit in the 2007 music video China Wine

The mega-production of song and dance of City Harvest’s “prosperity gospel”, as it is known, is feasible because of the religious organisation’s wealth. In a Reuters report in March last year, City Harvest, founded by Kong Hee and Ms Ho in 1989, was branded as “one of Asia’s most profitable churches”. How does (or should) a place of worship become profitable, it’s hard to say, but the financial pile may, perhaps, explain why the charge against Kong Hee and church officials involved S$50 million of church fund, most of the sum likely from tithes, a monetary obligation offered by members in support of their church. On City Harvest Chruch’s website, you will find the declaration, “We believe our giving is a form of worship.”

To propel Ho Yeow Sun into the international pop market, City Harvest established the Crossover Project in 2005. According to the court, S$24 million of church money was used to support the Crossover Project. It was a platform on which Ms Ho would morph into a pop star. Through her radio-friendly music, the church was to broaden the reach of their interpretation of the Scriptures to the secular world. Whether their mission was accomplished, perhaps only the church knows. But when you preface a song (Mr Bill) with 这狐狸精是谁 (Who is this bitch?) and wonders if you should “kill Bill” and “send him to the cemetery rock”, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting you to spread any Holy word.

The transformation was rather rapid. Before her English-language releases, Ms Ho moved to Taiwan, and recorded mostly in Mandarin. In early tracks, she sang like an older songstress trying to sound young. And she dressed, at least in her music video, like the genteel, fashion-unaware, flower of the schoolyard every Poly grad would love to date. In the music video of her earliest hit, 2003’s Lonely Travel ( 孤单旅行), a song that vaguely recalls Rene Liu’s Later (后来), she was styled to look like a kindergarten school teacher, pining for a lost love.

Sun Ho makeupThe heavy, tacky makeup Sun Ho wore in the Mr Bill music video

Fast forward to the 2007’s China Wine, a song sung mostly by rapper and Fugees co-founder Wyclef Jean, while Sun Ho was more chorus girl lost in a sea of black voices. She, too, was classic hua ping—decorative vase to Mr Jean’s booming machismo—in Oriental styles that catered to Western men’s take on Eastern exotica. Two years later, when the album Cause a Ruckus was released, Ms Ho “woke up feeling like a millionaire”, as sung in Fancy Free. That’s not really hard if you were living in a Hollywood Hills house, and not an exaggeration when your new “international” album was executive-produced by Wyclef Jean.

Although the China Wine video peaked at number 30 in YouTube’s list of Top Faves (Entertainment) in August 2007, it would never achieve the nearly 2.5 billion views of another Asian singer: Psy, who hit YouTube jackpot with the wildly catchy Gangnam Style. However, China Wine did gained traction in social media. Ms Ho’s costumes were looked at in disbelief: do pastors wear almost no clothes? Can City Harvest Church-goers still sing hymns with gusto while thinking of Ms Ho’s avatar rocking in panties? What, indeed, was she evangelising or was she just gyrating for the Almighty?

It is not known who designed her costumes when she started recording in Los Angeles, but it is possible she was packaged by her music company. Tarted up as a geisha reflected typical American ignorance towards Asian identities, but clad in clothes that looked like Ong Shanmugam’s rejected by Nikki Minaj showed that few costumers consider the ‘hip’ in hip-hop.