Music

Jennifer Lopez: Rebirth

Mike Schiller

Shouldn't a 'rebirth' imply some sort of major shift? Not so, for J. Lo.


Jennifer Lopez

Rebirth

Label: Epic
US Release Date: 2005-03-01
UK Release Date: 2005-02-28
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Four albums.

With the arrival of Rebirth, we are now witnessing the fourth album in the mind-bogglingly successful career of one Jennifer Lopez. One might ask the question of how she's maintained enough popularity to even get to a fourth album, but really, it's relatively simple -- she is adept as anyone in this new century at being absolutely everything to absolutely everyone. She can present herself as a strong-willed woman who bows to no man, while at the same time wearing a total of three square inches of clothing. She shows up in awful movie after awful movie, but she does it with a pleasant enough smile that people still seem to care when the next awful movie comes out. She even goes so far as to tread an ambiguous line of race, as she flaunts her Latino heritage in her public life and plays an Italian in The Wedding Planner, all while most of the general populace isn't sure whether to be outraged or indifferent if and when the N-word pops out of her mouth.

Her music has the same sorts of multiple-personality issues, given that she's never quite decided between pure pop, club-friendly dance-pop, or pop-oriented hip-hop as her genre of choice. This sort of pseudo-genre hopping could well be revered in more skilled artists, but in the hands (and hips and vocal cords) of someone such as Ms. Lopez, the insistence on flitting from one pop subgenre to the next betrays a lack of clear identity, albeit one that to date hasn't affected her stratospheric chart positioning. She is what her public wants her to be, and nothing more.

Four albums and six years into what has now turned into a bona fide recording career, it surely hasn't escaped Ms. Lopez that that public would like a little bit of expansion and experimentation in her musical output; sure she's Jenny from the block, but so what? A title like Rebirth hints at just the sort of change she expects we all would love to see -- carrying with it the connotation of new beginnings and a shedding of the past, it's clear that Lopez wants her own shot at legitimacy in the music scene. In the past year, she's seen Beyoncé blow up on the charts, yet pull serious gigs like the Super Bowl National Anthem and house vocalist at the Oscars. Who better to mimic when trying to make a play for artistic credibility?

Rebirth is that play, and despite the absurdity inherent in that previous sentence, the result could have been a lot worse.

The artist formerly known as J.Lo steps into the role of R&B chanteuse on Rebirth, mostly sacrificing the hip-hop and the techno beats in favor of midtempo chill. She's hired all the right producers -- Rodney Jerkins is here, Timbaland is here, even OutKast's Big Boi is here for an attempt at the redefinition of Jennifer Lopez. Unfortunately, these producers fall headfirst into Lopez's own clichés, rather than trying to help reshape her outside of her own boundaries. Big Boi's "Still Around" is fine enough as pleasant, candy-coated pop with a '70s groove, but it keeps Lopez's voice constantly in that slightly too-high range that more often than not approximates the wail of a sick cat. One of the revelations gained in listening to Rebirth is just how smooth Lopez sounds when she's sticking to her lower range, and how rarely producers and writers let her do just that. Timbaland's "He'll Be Back" features his trademarked, now-overdone squiggly eastern synth sounds, but he tones down his normally syncopated beats in favor of something banal enough for Jenny Lo to handle.

It's no surprise when one notices just who the two people are who do manage to force Lopez out of her shell: Hubby of the Year Marc Anthony and Rich Harrison, a.k.a. the man responsible for (surprise!) Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love". Harrison lays down a new set of loops out of what must be an endless supply of horn samples for first single "Get Right" (and the accompanying remix with a laughably awful Fabolous), which is more jazzy and funky than a Jennifer Lopez song has any right to be. The song keeps it simple, restricting the backing track to those infectious horns and a simple backbeat for most of the song, and "Get Right" manages the feat of being the grooviest dance track Lopez has released since J.Lo's "Play". Anthony dominates the other end of the spectrum, being responsible for the one successful ballad on the disc, the theatrical "(Can't Believe) This is Me". Sure, it sounds exactly like one might expect a Marc Anthony song to sound, and the production is way, way over the top with its Santana-esque guitar solos and sweeping strings, but this, now, is the sound of Lopez truly stretching her boundaries. The overblown production compensates for any deficiencies in the voice singing over it, and the song goes a long way toward convincing me that there just might be an actual human being behind the carefully crafted marketing machine.

Unfortunately, such strength is rare in the world of Rebirth, and more often than not, such artistic exploration is sacrificed in favor of, say, an ill-fated, milquetoast duet with Fat Joe (which, incidentally, is now making noise as the album's second single). As much as Jennifer Lopez and her army of handlers would like us to believe she's expanding her horizons, she's really just sticking to the formula that got her here -- give the people what they want. It may be a slight shift in style, it may be totally harmless, and it may contain the occasional surprise, but Rebirth is anything but the renaissance that its title promises.

4

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Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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