Amidst meeting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the surprise SNL appearance anchoring the performance of one of music’s ascendant stars, and taking his mainstream erotica soundtrack to the Oscars, one recent event has stood out as indicative of the Weeknd’s incredible metamorphosis from blog darling to ubiquity: a change in real estate. In a February Los Angeles Times article, it was revealed that the Weeknd, born Abel Tesfaye, no longer made his residence in Toronto, but instead lived in an LA condo. Having not left Toronto for virtually all of his first 21 years, the city can lay claim to birthing one of the greatest trilogies in music, and moving away signifies that era has ended. Now, this certainly isn’t surprising given his status, but instead makes this retrospective all the more necessary, as five years ago today, the Weeknd released his debut mixtape, House of Balloons.
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It’s hard to believe that over some 25 years ago, Q Lazzarus’ sole hit, the strangely entrancing thump of “Goodbye Horses”, was featured quite prominently in a well-received movie. That movie, of course, was Married to the Mob.
Wait, is that right?
Actually it is. Years before “Goodbye Horses” soundtracked one of the most unique scenes in cinema history during Silence of the Lambs, the song found quite a home in the Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle Married to the Mob. Even these decades down the line, still not much is known about the mysterious chanteuse Q Lazzarus aside from the fact that she worked as a taxi driver prior to being discovered as a singer (she later went on to have minor singing parts in films like Something Wild and Philadelphia, but almost entirely disappeared after that). To celebrate the anniversary of the release, “Goodbye Horses” is being put out on limited-edition vinyl via Mon Amie records, the a-side featuring Q Lazzarus’ original rendition, the b-side being a remarkably astute, considered cover of the song by Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thrope and Jon Hopkins.
I imagine that most of you had the time-honored Dick Clark countdown special on at some point during your New Year’s Eve. And, unless you were studiously avoiding Mr. Clark right around that all-important midnight hour—perhaps starting on your midnight amorousness early?—I imagine also that you caught the New Kids on the Block/Backstreet Boys joint performance, intended to advertise their upcoming tour together. Perhaps you watched out of the corner of your eye, amused. Maybe you cracked a joke to a friend or partner about the increasingly inappropriate moniker of “boy”, suggesting the word was starting to lose all meaning for you. I doubt that, for most of you, you thought about the Backstreet Boys very much more after that. But speaking for myself, and for a certain special contingent of ladies out there, the performance marked yet another stop in a very strange tour of duty.
Take it from a former super-fan: watching the Backstreet Boys perform after all these years is weird. Down one “boy”, the remaining four 30-somethings soldier on, having been unable to forge successful solo careers, and clinging somewhat remarkably to the decaying specter that is the boy band (even as I type the latter, the 12-year-old zealot in me cries foul at my once-unthinkable betrayal). On New Year’s Eve, watching, cringing, at the less-than-stellar performance, I recognized that what I was watching was a show of relics going through the motions; it was as if something mummified had been raised from the dead, only to sing (croak) and dance (stagger) about the stage for some unknown purpose.
An anecdote: a friend of mine was unironically dragged to a Backstreet Boys concert a few years ago by a prospective girlfriend. As he tentatively swayed to the familiar music and swore never to call her again, he took stock of his surroundings. No one around him was over the age of fourteen. The music of his youth was no longer his, nor hers, nor for most of the fans who had once been so devoted. These legions had been replaced by new ahistoric droves, apart from the initial formation and progression of the Backstreet Boys.
And what a progression, eh? Bursting onto the European pop scene in 1996, the BSB became internationally famous after only a few short years toiling in anonymity. “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” climbed the charts. In 1997, they returned home to a loving public; hence, “Backstreet’s Back”. I, a ten-year-old girl, was part of that public. Having first joined the fanhood in order to fit in at my new suburban Texas elementary school, I quickly took to the enterprise with great zest. What follows now you will have to forgive me for.
“Nineteen eighty-nine! / The number another summer”, Chuck D declared on “Fight the Power”, the pinnacle song from that summer’s most incendiary movie, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.
But that summer was far from just another summer. The summer began with the protests in Tiananmen Square, which at first looked peaceful, but then turned shockingly violent as thousands of demonstrators were killed during China’s brutal crackdown. Also during that summer, the Eastern Bloc countries were falling at an astounding rate, culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall was a defining closer to the 1980s. For many, the ‘80s felt like a big party. This was reflected in popular music, fashion and movies. Sure, East and West had the threat of “mutually assured destruction” looming over, but heyah, at least the economy was booming. But as the ‘80s and the Cold War drew to a close, there seemed to be a collective bit of hangover’s regret going on. For too long, it seemed like pop culture was a non-stop party. The charts were filled with either boy bands or hair-teased pop metal (with a few bright exceptions, thanks to U2 and the unlikely top ten self-titled smash from Tracy Chapman). Now, as peace has broken out, it was time to get serious. If only there was a cause to galvanize this newfound sense of responsibility.
Few artists get to a stage where they need to release an album to dismantle people’s perceptions. In many cases, these types of albums are known as “career suicide” albums. Think Faith No More’s Angel Dust or Nirvana’s In Utero as a reaction to people’s perceptions of the band based on hearing only one of their songs. Think Kiss’ The Elder as their bid to be taken seriously. Or think Garth Brooks’ excursion as Chris Gaines as his reaction to…something.
In terms of hip-hop, De La Soul was one of the pioneers of the genre, so it was appropriate that the band released one of the first perceived “career suicide” albums in hip-hop. De La Soul is Dead was released in 1991 as gangsta rap was still the dominant force in rap. Before Dr. Dre’s The Chronic made gangsta rap more palatable to suburbia, bands like N.W.A. and the Geto Boys as well as Ice Cube’s solo work participated in a one-upsmanship in terms of their hardness. This left De La Soul even more out of the mainstream than when they released their classic debut album Three Feet High and Rising. In addition to competing with gangsta rap on the radio, De La Soul was dealing with the stresses of releasing a follow-up album to an instant classic, a mass of hangers-on begging them to listen to their demo and the label of being “the hippies of hip-hop.”