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.