28
Aug 99

91. MARY J BLIGE – “Be Happy”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s 

Urban Debussy beat: Mary J’s aqueous introductory bubblings convinced me that swingbeat was worth it, that its hard and glamourous stare masked multiple sonic joys, that the mutterings of crits about melisma and materialism and monotony were mostly point-missing flummery.

Why do I like swingbeat? Because of all the things that make it so untrustworthy and odd-feeling. Swingbeat is upmarket, plush and distanced – the beats are poised and smooth but still just a backdrop for the bejewelled music. Once you’ve broken through swingbeat’s luxury barrier and adjusted to the passionless, sumptuous surroundings, you notice how gorgeously sculpted and weighted every bass throb, keyboard pulse, or stringed ripple is, and you start to care less about the showboating singing. When swing gets to loving it’s the beat and the gloss that’s sexy, not the voice (and in any case swing singers often seem to have an acute, sexy sense of their own absurdity).

On “Be Happy”, though, the voice counts: Blige’s singing is stranded across the eddying music, sounding so bereft it’s like she’s talking mostly to herself, trying to keep warm. Nothing resolves – the verse drifts into a keening sing-song chorus, Mary sounds no happier, and the music just keeps flowing beautifully along. A perfect studio construction, “Be Happy” is sonically as ahuman as its throwback critics would suggest, but it touches me effortlessly.

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