Artists of the Year

The Rhett Miller I'm talking about is, of course, not the same as the very nice young man I met once in Austin, Texas, who is every bit as charming, cute, sweet (I know guys hate being called that but I can't resist), smart, funny, and generally swell as one would expect. That one is married (I hear tell from the ever-informative First Avenue newsletter) and doesn't really have time to keep me company while I wrestle my demons into print. Maintaining this perspective allows me, when Rhett Miller is playing First Avenue on the very night I'm flying to New York, to realize that this is a cause for sadness, but not outright tears, the tearing of hair, or the canceling of a plane ticket. I know which Rhett is mine: the Rhett who, like Krishna, can be a thousand places at once. And one of them, very often, is my place.

We stay up late.

Carson Kreitzer is a playwright living in Minneapolis. Her work includes last year's SELF DEFENSE, or death of some salesmen and The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which opens locally in February.

Scott Wright


Mary Cleere Haran

It's an odd, heartening, and Paradoxical profession: the business of keeping deathless music alive. The great American popular song, as shaped by Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern and Cole Porter and a host of others, flourished in the first half of the 20th century; in the year 2002, many if not most of the songs we think of as "standards" were written by people born not in the previous century but in the last-but-one. These are not just old favorites but old favorites. Spry though they may be, these songs occasionally need to be led outside and given a little air.

This past spring, the cabaret singer Mary Cleere Haran took the songs of Rodgers and Hart for a brisk walk round the block. Her extended run at Manhattan's Algonquin Hotel was called "Falling in Love with Love." She had clearly rethought Rodgers's melodies and Hart's lyrics, and the result was a number of songs emerging with a new spring in their step.

The Rodgers and Hart collaboration may well be the richest in the annals of American popular song. Had they written only "My Funny Valentine" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "Blue Moon," they would have secured a permanent place for themselves among song devotees. But they also wrote "Thou Swell" and "This Can't Be Love" and "I Could Write a Book" and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and "Ten Cents a Dance" and "It Never Entered My Mind." The list goes on and on.

Haran has a newish CD, Crazy Rhythm: Manhattan in the 20's, which presents a couple of Rodgers and Hart songs, as well as movingly understated renditions of Berlin's "What'll I Do" and Al Dubin and Harry Warren's "Lullaby of Broadway." But my favorite of her albums remains This Funny World, a collection of Rodgers and Hart songs first released in 1995. Wisely, Haran doesn't attempt to cover, even cursorily, the range of that incomparable team. She settles mostly for the intimate melodies with the wistful lyrics. Just the sort of delicate songs that should, with proper tending, endure for centuries.

Brad Leithauser occasionally writes about American popular song for The New York Review of Books. His novel in verse, Darlington's Fall, was published last spring. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.


Kylie Minogue

The only false note struck on Kylie Minogue's Fever occurs early in the title track, when she mews, "There ain't a doctor in this town who is more qualified." Wha? You don't live in a town, Kylie. You live in an animatronic wonderland where you wear silver dresses and dance while staring into the camera, where the walls move around and there are backup dancers and the beats are big and luscious and your hair is flawless and you rule the goddamned world. "Town"? What, are you under the mistaken impression that you're some kind of, hahaha, "regular person"? Hello! No regular person makes singles as good as "Can't Get You Out of My Head" and (especially) "Love at First Sight"--duh!

But we'll let this chink in your armor go, because you've done the greatest thing any icon can do: You have submitted yourself to the will of the people. Not some paranoid isolated celebrity's idea of what the will of the people is, which is how we end up with Michael Jackson and he ends up without a nose. Nor do I mean the asinine "keeping it real" posturing that results in sad, sad enterprises like "Jenny from the Block." We didn't elect those people class president because they were normal; we did so because they were extraordinary, and they betray our trust when they pretend otherwise.

You, on the other hand, were elected Euroland's Super-National Goddess, and you honor that position shrewdly: You're the girl with the most cake, and Fever is all frosting. The li'l-girl voice you sing "Come into My World" with is so calculated it's almost cruel, but the rest of the time you lead us to the promised land and/or dance floor by being dazzlingly überhuman: the heart-stopping vocoders of "Burning Up," the way "Can't Get You Out of My Head" makes on-the-beat rigidity sound like divine rapture. "Love at First Sight" is dizzy with grace notes: that ba-baaaa at the top of the second chorus, the stark silence Kylie breaks to start verse two, the way the chorus ("Baby, when I heard you/For the first time, I knew/We were meant to be as one") conflates seeing and hearing the way a true MTV-age product oughta, the way its in-out dynamics work exactly the way you A) know they're going to; and B) absolutely need them to whenever the song is playing.

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