Remixing rock or alternative tracks could be one of the 90s’ more thankless tasks. Keep the structure intact, stripping out and replacing the song’s undercarriage, and fans might sniff about crass chop-shop philistinism. Really go to work on it, though, rebuilding a track entirely, and the same fans might howl about not recognising any of it. But not all listeners were so precious, and in any case the remixes kept coming. It wasn’t just a case of filling the obligatory ‘CD2’, either: There was something irresistible about the idea of them, the thought that turning songs into cyborg versions of themselves might be a way of getting at an artist’s essence.
That’s not quite what’s going on here, though given his remix was apparently non-commissioned it’s fascinating to imagine quite what Armand Van Helden heard in the original “Professional Widow” to spark his collapse and reconstruction of it. I am not a Tori Amos expert, or even fan, so I asked The Lex about the record, and he told me “Widow” is from Amos’ “most difficult/stark/piano-harpsichord-shrieking-catharsis” LP (Boys For Pele). A listen bears this out – it’s a compelling event, fragmented lyrics and venomous singing across a wheezing, mixed-down harpsichord, but it defeats me as a casual critic. I get a feeling that to begin to decipher it I’d need an immersion in Tori Amos continuity. This isn’t a failing of the track as opposed to its listener, but this is a blog about how music works as pop, and “Professional Widow” isn’t playing that game: this is not a song that cares very much for the traditional pleasures and payoffs of a pop record.
And yet here it is at Number One, in a form which also, frankly, isn’t wedded to those pleasures and payoffs. Beyond its found vocals, Armand Van Helden’s do-over of “Professional Widow” has two things in common with its source. It likes to disorient you, throwing disconnected ideas and snatches of sound out across its reliably solid beat. And it concedes nothing to any alternative use you might want to make of it: this is still music with a fixed context, but now that context is “dancer” not “Tori Amos”. I’d probably have to go back to “Jack Your Body” to find a dance music Number One that cares less about working outside the club.
So to get any purchase on it I need to rewind, and think of “Professional Widow” not as a remix but as a track that happens to sample Tori Amos. Most of the dance music hits we’ve bumped into recently owe more to rave and hip-hop than to house and garage music, making “Professional Widow” a window on a scene Popular hasn’t looked at for 18 months or so. In some ways “Professional Widow” is a good snapshot of developments – in others it’s already roving forward.
The familiar first – one mid-90s tendency in house music was to break down vocals even further, until they became just one more little event in a track, something to trigger a rush or a cue to move. The bits of Tori Amos that van Helden pulls out, edits and speeds up aren’t doing much more than making the track sound trashier and hotter. They sound a bit dirty, which probably did them some good chartwise, but the real action is happening lower down, in those quick, dipping snatches of bassline under the track.
This sound – fast, bass-led, with a distorted breakdown and a chaos of high-end sounds flashing past like lights from a car window – is the “dark garage” van Helden was already exploring in 1996. His remix of Sneaker Pimps’ “Spin Spin Sugar” – used a lot of the same tricks as “Professional Widow”, just less brashly deployed. That remix has been credited with helping invent ‘speed garage’, the London sound of 1997, which mixed in jungle and ragga influences to get to a more menacing place.
It’s rare to have to write paragraphs that genre-dense on Popular, because usually clubland trends don’t break through into the Number One list as dramatically as here: more often, dancefloor innovation reaches us pre-chewed. “Professional Widow” is closer to the edge of dance music, though, which is one reason for its odd, raw, provisional sound: it’s a style that’s not quite ready to crossover yet, doing so anyway. What we’re left with are fleeting emotional impressions – the joyous hedonism of early-90s house music tipping over into something rougher-edged, more decadent, and more intoxicating. The moment on “Professional Widow” that brings this most home is the breakdown, Tori’s fractured “Beau-ti-ful ang-el” sung high over a swirl of sleazed-up, echoing keyboards before the party starts again. So it was her track, all along.