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Jan 16

CHRISTINA AGUILERA, LIL KIM, MYA AND PINK – “Lady Marmalade”

Popular23 comments • 2,115 views

#900, 30th June 2001

marmalade Patti Labelle was scandalised, so she said, to learn “Lady Marmalade” is about a hooker. But it’s also about a john – on paper, the payoff of the lyric is that last verse, where the guy goes back to his “grey flannel life” and can’t get Marmalade out of his head. Kenny Nolan and Bob Crewe were tapping into one of the world’s oldest folktales, likely without intention but that’s why folktales work: the man who spends a night of bliss in the otherworld with a magical temptress, returns to his world, and can never be the same.

That tale is rarely told from the temptress’ perspective. In the lyric, Marmalade of old New Orleans is there to be the Other – in race, in language, in location, in profession. But the song “Lady Marmalade” and its singer Patti Labelle fought against its lyric, took it back with a riff, a cry, a vocal hook that centres the song firmly on Marmalade, stops you caring what happens to the guy but still makes you feel what he was drawn to.

That riff is the spine of the song – and after 1975, as “Lady Marmalade” was echoed, deconstructed and reconstructed in other versions, they were defined by its presence or absence. Fifteen years later Shaun Ryder found the riff, and used it on the Happy Mondays “Kinky Afro” – “Yippee yippee iy-iy-ay-ay-ay!” – as a dreg of celebration, a bitter shout summing up a man who’d lived his life in that otherworld, with nowhere to come from or return to. Eight years after that, All Saints found it, and let it go, stripping context away too, turning “Voulez-vous coucher….?” into a casual request between slightly-more-than-friends. A healthier attitude, but a defanged song.

And now, three years on again, we get a full cover, the promo single for a Baz Luhrmann film. This time the Labelle original isn’t cherry-picked or broken-up, but expanded: more singers, more opulence, more song. The gitchy-gitchy riff roars through it, passed like a baton among the women singing. The new song makes one small alteration, though – the setting shifts from New Orleans to the Moulin Rouge in Paris. And the Moulin Rouge is a theatre, a disreputable one perhaps, but still a place for spectacle and glitz, and for burlesque – the mix of sex, style, agility and formidable technique. Which is what this cover aims to deliver.

The key to it is at the end, when the performers each take their vocal bow, led into the spotlight by Missy Elliott. Christina delivers “Lady” as a downhill slalom, Pink swaggers forward and belts a word or two out, Lil Kim ad libs, and Mya gives a slow-jam coo. It makes a claim for the song as a celebration of diversity and skill. Four women, four styles, four top-class performers, “four badass chicks from the Moulin Rouge”.

Except the rest of the song has only half-kept that promise. That coda – just Missy and a beat – lets the quartet do what they like. The rest of “Lady Marmalade” is an exercise in scale, and its singers don’t all get much chance to show their individual approaches. Aguilera, Pink and Mya go for acrobatics, perhaps because they’re having to fight heavy-handed backing, and while they have the technique for it, they sound less distinct than you’d hope. That production – thick and harsh, with sludgy, metallic synth tones snaking through the song’s bottom end – prefigures Pink’s reinvention as a rock’n’b star (“Lady Marmalade” is the bigger, clumsier cousin of her excellent “Get This Party Started”) It fits Aguilera’s trajectory, too – the scuzzy, violent take on burlesque we’ll see next time she hits number one. But it’s still an overwrought single, with little of the sly warmth Labelle brought to it.

There is an exception, though. Lil Kim’s verse – one of the best raps on a cover version – twists and enriches the song, and does its best to save “Lady Marmalade” from being a chore. Kim stays absolutely true to Luhrmann’s overblown vision – “we drink wine with diamonds in the glass”, she boasts. But she also breaks up the song, stops it being an exercise in pure gymnastics, and pulls it into the ongoing conversation of 00s R&B, by picking up the “all the honeys, making money” sentiments of Destinys’ Child and turning them sweetly confrontational. “Independent women, some mistake us for whores / Tell me, why spend mine when I could spend yours?” is a bit of gleeful provocation, brushing off criticisms of rap and R&B materialism by doubling down on it with a smile. It’s the one moment of bite in this gaudy summit meeting of new stars, and in twenty-seven years of the song, it feels like Marmalade finally gets to answer back.

5

Comments

  1. 1
    Tom on 14 Jan 2016 #

    I went and saw Moulin Rouge (not because of this single) but my story of seeing it ties into a later 2001 entry so I’ll keep mum for now.

  2. 2
    Phil on 14 Jan 2016 #

    a man who’d lived his life in that otherworld, with nowhere to come from or return to

    O what can ail thee, Shaun Ryder,
    Alone and palely loitering…?

  3. 3
    JLucas on 14 Jan 2016 #

    The best version of this iteration of the song is the live performance at the 2001 Grammy Awards, which culminates in the never-knowingly-restrained Patti Labelle emerging from beneath the stage and indulges in a level of blood-curdling screaming that makes Aguilera sound like Enya by comparison.

    It’s quite something: https://youtu.be/EdaSRzHKkUw

    Theatrical is the correct way to describe this. I struggle with Aguilera as a vocalist, to put it mildly, but at least by positioning her as the grand finale here, this record puts her melismatic showboating in a more tolerable context than anything she subsequently recorded.

    The ordering of the performers feels right, in terms not only of their star wattage in 2001*, but also in terms of volume. Mya (where now?) is breathy and coquettish, P!nk deploys her slightly abrasive bad girl persona, Lil Kim delivers a fast-paced interval act, a hype man with a sideline in insult comedy, and finally Aguilera steamrollers in, fully aware of her position as the star turn and demanding complete attention.

    It’s a fun version of the song – enjoyable in small doses only, but ten times more effective than the watery All Saints interpretation. My memory of Moulin Rouge is quite dim, but I remember it as being an oddly chaste romantic fairytale to be attached to a song as full on as this. A crass but compelling pile-up of unbridled ego and unapologetic avarice, it would have been more at home on the Showgirls soundtrack.

    6

    * In the long term of course, P!nk would have a longer and more rewarding career than Aguilera. But few would have predicted that in 2001. She speaks frankly about the nightmarish experience of working with her here: https://youtu.be/x4_FHjK6GB4

  4. 4
    mapman132 on 14 Jan 2016 #

    #1 for 5 weeks in the US, but only the 24th biggest hit of 2001 – there was little correlation between peak and year-end positions of the Hot 100 in that strangest of years. Also, LM 1975 is still the most recent Hot 100 #1 for which a straight cover also became a Hot 100 #1 – more proof that we just don’t do covers here.

    In 2001 I was fairly unfamiliar with the original LM so this became the definitive version to my ears. As #3 said, Christina was the star here, almost making the other three sound like amateurs when she belts in. And I was one of many who didn’t expect Pink to have the better long term career, both worldwide, and with me personally as she would eventually record two of my favorite songs of the past 10 years (one bunnied, one not, both US #1’s though). Unlike Christina, Pink never even attempted to compete with Britney, and as a result, established her own style and persona while Christina floundered.

    Final note: Pink is geographically the closest we’ll come to my childhood home on this forum as she grew up about 10 miles from where I did, although about seven years later than me.

  5. 5
    katstevens on 14 Jan 2016 #

    The video was a mainstay on Hits! and TMF for a good five years afterwards – popping up for literally any listicle, presumably including ’50 Most Extravagant Music Video Wigs’.

  6. 6
    AMZ1981 on 15 Jan 2016 #

    Of the four featured artists we’ve already met Christina Aguilera and will do so again. Of the remaining three Mya had charted best (number three and a credit on a massive number two) and Lil Kim worst at number 11. Pink had three top ten hits at that point with the biggest hitting number five.

    Mya would never get better than number 33 after this. Lil Kim’s biggest solo hit was also behind her although she’d come within one place of equaling it in 2005 before vanishing off the radar. As others have noted above it was Pink who would prove to be the transcendent one of the four although that was not obvious at the time. Thankfully we have two excellent bunnies to discuss when the time comes.

  7. 7
    mapman132 on 15 Jan 2016 #

    It’s also worth noting that Christina has only had one more US #1 since this, and she wasn’t even the lead artist.

  8. 8
    weej on 15 Jan 2016 #

    There seem to be two problems with this release – firstly the musical-theatre keyboard-preset backing makes it sound like a daytime TV variety show cover version, secondly the breaking up of the song seems to have been done by committee – everyone gets a verse, everyone gets to join in on the chorus, everyone can freestyle at the end – without any thought about making the singers work together in any sense. Ultimately it’s a trailer for the movie, and it doesn’t seem to be aiming to be anything more.

    I only saw Moulin Rouge one time, dubbed into German, with the songs still in English, which didn’t work.

  9. 9

    heroic bit of point-missing alert: i disliked the original as a fusty teen because they said it marmeLARD not marmeLAYD

  10. 10
    lonepilgrim on 15 Jan 2016 #

    LARDY MarmeLAYD

  11. 11
    thefatgit on 15 Jan 2016 #

    It’s a croquembouche, innit?

  12. 12
    Tom on 15 Jan 2016 #

    This is, of course, the 900th Number One, so I will go on record as saying my aim is to hit 1000 by the end of 2016. I have something nice planned for that. (Not quitting.) Do please encourage me.

  13. 13
    thefatgit on 15 Jan 2016 #

    Marvellous achievement to get this far, Tom. May your enthusiasm for Popular never diminish!

  14. 14
    The Bellman on 16 Jan 2016 #

    #9. I agree. I also used to get annoyed because Old New Orleans, where he met Marmerlard, would surely be Orleans.

  15. 15
    JoeWiz on 17 Jan 2016 #

    This does exactly what you’d want a record like this to do. There’s enough sass and ‘flava’ to both draw your attention and keep it there for just about enough repeat listens. Missy feels a bit like an afterthought, I’d quite like her to have featured in the heart of the song a bit more.
    I liked Mya, and as observed above, she felt like a bigger star than Pink at this point, what went wrong? Without Wikiing it, I can’t remember anything substantial going against her….
    Christina looks great in this, and her best album(s?) are obviously still ahead of her, but I’m still looking forward to discussing where her career list traction. (Cough, splutter, Burlesque, splutter)

  16. 16
    Andrew on 17 Jan 2016 #

    Missy actually produced this (as she had Mel B’s 1998 #1 I Want You Back, on which she contributed four lines of rap to the intro). So her ad-libs here may feel an afterthought, but she hadn’t just been roped in to act as a hypewoman.

    Missy’s still yet to have a solo UK number one, with Get Ur Freak On being her highest peak at #4 (although its parent album Miss E topped the charts, a rare – unique? – feat for a female rapper on our shores). Would now be a good time to discuss her?

  17. 17
    Erithian on 17 Jan 2016 #

    Not my usual bag, but a very impressive gathering of the talents for an exploration of exotic sexuality and the power balance within the relationship. Spot on Tom with your assessment of Kim’s rap and the extra dimension it gives. And JLucas, thanks for the pointer to the Grammy performance – stunning stuff, especially from Patti Labelle herself (who is quoted on Wiki as initially claiming she had no idea the song was about a hooker – hmmm.) I wonder what Tony Bennett, who’s spotted in the audience, made of it?

    Raise your bat to the pavilion for the 900, Tom – congratulations and good luck reaching the thousand this year!

  18. 18
    Kinitawowi on 17 Jan 2016 #

    It tries. Bless it, it tries. But it’s Too Much all over again; it’s okay enough, but we’re all just waiting for Christina to turn up – and when she gets her talons into this she rips the whole thing to pieces.

    Crass, bloated and badly paced – so a perfect match for the film it’s there to flog. 4.

    #11:

    “For the last time, it’s not a cake, it’s a croquembouche! Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Halle Berry each had croquembouches at their showers. I read Kim Kardashian is serving a croquembouche made out of thousands of tiny croquembouches!”
    “I’m sorry, you just said ‘croquembouche’ like, a hundred times.”
    “YOU’RE A HORRIBLE PERSON.”

  19. 19
    Chelovek na lune on 17 Jan 2016 #

    A disappointing cover that fails the basic “do it differently or do it better than the original” maxim. In places workaday, in places excessive – it fails to get the balance right. (4)

  20. 20
    lonepilgrim on 18 Jan 2016 #

    at times this feels like the Spinal Tap approach compared to Labelle, with everything turned up to 11. Alan Toussaint had a hand in producing the earlier version and brought some genuine New Orleans syncopation to the production whereas the rhythm on this is monotonous . Patti Labelle’s vocals (and those of the other singers) grow more uninhibited as the song develops whereas Christina A steams in at full throttle and belts away with little subtlety. Lil’ Kim’s rap is by far the best part of the song, showing a willingness to push back against both the lyrics and ham fisted production.
    The Labelle version always makes me feel energised whereas this just makes me feel beaten into submission.

  21. 21
    JLucas on 18 Jan 2016 #

    As we’ll not see her in her own right, I have to say here that my all time favourite ‘Patti LaBelle shrieks like a banshee’ moment is during this mid-90s tribute to Michael Jackson. It all starts off so nicely too…

    https://youtu.be/zmMOgVluduk

  22. 22
    Andrew on 19 Jan 2016 #

    I’ll Stand by You, in tribute to Destiny’s Child, is quite something:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XF_OXpwGjc

  23. 23

    tinny patti long long ago:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpmV4JEsAPo

    (some discussion on youtube if she’s singing lead or not)

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