You say you don’t like opera? Well, what about a rock opera? You know, Hair, or Tommy by the Who? Well, now we’re getting closer to the essence of this ‘operetta’. We’re in the right ballpark, but we need to move out of the arena. Tom Zé‘s Estudando o Pagode is more like a pop opera … a ‘popera’, if you will (hey, if there can be such a thing as a hip-hopera, then all bets are off). So, fans of Zé and dislikers of opera can all breathe easier. Despite the organizational framework—the philosophical foundation, declaring this disc to be an operetta—the result is much more closely aligned with the maverick Brazilian’s pop discography than it is with the canons of Verdi or Puccini.
Some of you might be coming to this review without prejudice. You don’t know who Tom Zé is and, if an album wants to call itself an operetta, then so be it. As long as it’s groovy, then who cares? Exactly! For you, then, let me introduce you to one of music’s great eccentrics. Born of the same late 1960s Tropicálista politico-cultural movement that spawned a generation of Brazil’s finest pop music-makers (including Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Os Mutantes), Zé has specialized in a spare and sprightly Dadaist pop music. As a singer, he is a lover of isolated syllables. Thirty years before this current album, he issued the excellent Estudando o Samba, whose song titles are an exercise in brevity: “Mã”, “Tô”, and the percolative “Hein?”, where lead and backing vocals bounce like popping corn. And his thin, staccato, percussive, electric guitar lines often sound like programmed loops of cheaply tinny, digital, pizzicato violins. But in a great way!
When an artist is born outside the mainstream, or even the conventions of the counterculture, then there really isn’t much need to alter the blueprint. Happily, the Tom Zé of 2005 (when this album was released in its native country) sounds very much like the Tom Zé of 1975. Perhaps even more so. Which is to say, he’s fine-tuned his unique qualities over years. By no means, however, has he smoothed out the edges; or, as one might say, “pulled a Sting” on us. On Estudando o Pagode, the songwriter has discovered even more avenues for subverting the paradigm of pop. Well, crafting a pop album as an opera is chief among these techniques. But, in a sense, that’s all window dressing. After all, when listening to this record, we experience sixteen tracks of music, all lasting the length of a normal song (three, four, five minutes) and featuring vocalists singing without a trace of operatic technique or bravado. There are no orchestras. The music, like with most of his compositions, are based primarily on voice, electric and acoustic guitars, percussion, some bass, and some keyboards. Clearly, this all adds up to a pop album. And, for an oaf like myself who has never been able to get a grip on the mellifluous and elusive Brazilian Portuguese tongue, the lyrics have little impact on my aural experience of this disc.
Okay, but what is the operetta about? And what the heck is a pagode? Earlier this year, PopMatters’ own Jennifer Kelly put these same questions to Tom Zé, himself. He was as guarded as a magician asked to reveal the mechanics of his spells, but
the interview is fun to read, nonetheless. Meanwhile, here are some concise answers. The operetta is about the liberation of women, as told in three acts, and involving a contemporary narrative of a university student who turns to prostitution mixed with stories from the Bible and mythology. Philosophically, pagode is a recently invented subgenre of samba based on intelligent and humorous lyrics and a Zen-like attitude toward life (musically, it apparently involves a banjo; I guess they cheated a bit here). So, quite appropriately, Tom Zé is updating his earlier approach to pop-crafting. But he’s also looking far backwards, as he draws parallels between historical and current female roles in society.
Clearly, weaving all of these strands together was a hugely ambitious undertaking. A minimalist hardly seems like the candidate for tackling so grand a project, but Zé‘s unfettered aesthetic is precisely what makes it work. Traditional opera is overwrought. Popera, on the other hand, takes a more laid-back approach. On a very basic level, this CD is a fun, weird, nifty album of Brazilian pop music, and can easily be enjoyed as such. Unpeel the layers, and you will reap even greeter rewards, revealing a creative treatise on the rights of women in society. When so few albums are either entertaining from start to finish or have anything of import to communicate, Tom Zé‘s smart and zany Estudando o Pagode offers the best of both worlds.