Un beso. A few weeks ago, during his hot-ticket performance at London’s gay nightclub G.A.Y., hetero heartthrob and erstwhile Latin pop “It” boy Enrique Iglesias freaked his signature stage bit where he plucks a female fan from the crowd and serenades her with his hit, “Hero,” a cookie-cutter I-will-be-your-white-knight pledge of eternal love and heroism. That night, he pulled a young man from the audience, crooned the tune to him (“I can be your hero, baby/I can kiss away the pain/I will stand by you forever/You can take my breath away . . .”), hugged him from behind as he sang, and then ended the song with a tender peck on the guy’s forehead. Audience cell-phone cameras went into overdrive. Within hours, the entire performance was uploaded to YouTube several times over and seen around the globe. (In the comments section of one posting of the clip, a fan wrote in cap-lock hysteria, “OH GOD SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME THAT’S NOT THE REAL ENRIQUE!” — a bit of psychic distress that can only be responded to with ROFLMAO.
That delicate, sweet moment, the very definition of gangsta, underscored the emotional pull of banal sentiments and the powerful, definition-shifting relationship between context and meaning; it demonstrated how shrewd marketing moves can dovetail into genuine political statements. Or vice versa. Iglesias pushed the now rote, pandering PR phrases (“I love and respect all my fans no matter who they are . . .”) of “cool” and “enlightened” straight male pop/rock stars to the position of not just acknowledging but actually swimming in the sexual currents between them and their male fans — and not just queer boys, but that’s a thesis for another day — while mocking the fears and bigotry of homophobes by simply shrugging them off. What we saw was a rare bit of actual subversion at a time when political, religious and cultural fundamentalism is on the rise everywhere, and when American culture, specifically, is filled with dickless prefab rebels, media-stroked right-wing nut jobs, reactionary and fear-based thug posturing, and the still-thriving remnants of our own Puritan roots. The revolution? It’s in his kiss.
As for Iglesias’ new CD, Insomniac? Wan pop with insipid lyrics, a guest rapper (Lil’ Wayne, himself no stranger to male-on-male kissing), hard beats beneath flaccid grooves that bloodlessly run one into the other. He’s gonna have to invest in a lot of ChapStick to make this one fly.
Meanwhile, there’s Donnie, the great soul singer whose fantastic, but commercially ill-fated, 2002 debut CD, The Colored Section, was steeped in political consciousness and biting social commentary. Anchored in black pride, its unapologetic affirmations of blackness (“We live from the head down and not the feet up/And I’m adorned with the crown that’s making this up . . .”) resonated deeply for folk nostalgic for music rooted in spirit. Still, Donnie was too black, too strong for the marketplace, and not just in terms of his art. His dark skin, unambiguously Negroid features and whispered sexuality (the man flames gloriously) foretold a career path that would be strewn with rocks. After battles with drugs and his label, he’s back with The Daily News, which delves even deeper into history and topicality than its predecessor: racism, suicide, sexism, homophobia, child molestation, America as a hypocritically overmedicated country, the Atlanta child murders. It’s an album meant to push Donnie beyond the throwback-soul brigade, that crowd of new-wave/old-wave R&B singers who replicate the singing and production styles of folks like Donny Hathaway (to whom Donnie sounds eerily similar, in voice and songwriting perspective), Stevie, Curtis and Marvin. Most who’ve aped the aesthetics of these icons have had no greater goal than cooking up heat-and-eat nostalgia as proof of authentic soulfulness. The irony is that by burrowing deeper into the role of social commentator, Donnie not only pulls ahead of the pack, but edges even closer to the icons.
The opening track, “Impatient People,” with its empathetic nod to folks victimized by both Hurricane Katrina and official responses to it, sets the overall tone (“I’m an American and I am human/You treat me like an animal/Oh, can we be civil y’all/I’m not a refugee, I’m an evacuee/I’m just a citizen . . .”). The next song, “911,” a state-of-emergency call for social justice that is also one of the album’s best tracks, notes the ways that assorted bigotries hamstring intra- and interpersonal relationships, and how we have to give up those bigotries to get closer not just to other human beings, but to ourselves.
The Daily News isn’t as immediately accessible as Colored Section, which was an embarrassment of effortless hooks and memorable melodies. News is more like freeform prose compared to the taut political poetry of its predecessor. But those lyrics are still powerful; they incinerate on the pages of the accompanying CD booklet, hold you captive for being so far beyond the emotional and thematic scope of what most contemporary R&B even attempts to do. In fact, and this isn’t a diss, it starts to sound a bit like the soundtrack to a Broadway show on the racialized ills of America, with subplots about other forms of abuse and oppression snaking through.
Still, when the album really hits, it hits hard. “Over-the-Counter-Culture,” which doesn’t play on the words in the title near as much as it could have, is a biting indictment of the doctors and the “legit” drug industry given carte blanche to drug up a nation while the local corner dealer is penalized for the same. News’ apex, though, is the lovely “If I Were You,” a head-nodder and toe-tapper rich with the sound of birds chirping, a foregrounded harmonica, layered vocals from Donnie, and the gentle advice to have the courage to change, let go of the burdens that wear you down, the bad habits that thwart your goals, and the self-hate that’s at the core of so many folks’ spiritual ache.
DONNIE | The Daily News | Soul Thought Entertainment
ENRIQUE IGLESIAS | Insomniac | Interscope