Monday, March 27, 2023

The Siren: Madonna and the Drowning World

Seeing as she has been a primary vector and conduit for a never-ending torrent of evil and degeneracy fed into mainstream culture for the past forty years, it's no surprise that Madonna would play a walk-on role in our ever-evolving mythopoetic Magical Mystery Play. And what a role it is.

Let's back it up a bit: I mentioned Madonna (whom journalists always namedrop as a fan in Cocteau Twins pieces) in a sidebar in the previous post, in reference to the "Teardrop" controversy. 

Let's review:

I also wonder what Elizabeth thought of Madonna going with the whole "Drowned World" motif after being nixed for "Teardrop." It would be totally on-brand for Madonna to name it so simply to taunt Elizabeth over Buckley's death, seeing as how toxic narcissists - of whom Madge is the unchallenged High Priestess - never forget or forgive those kinds of slights. 

All the more given that Madhatterdonna chose to work with William Orbit on the album, which most at the time saw as a strange choice for her as a collaborator. 

But maybe this was more sniping: the Cocteau Twins had a prior working arrangement with Orbit, having recorded the epochal Tiny Dynamine and Echoes in a Shallow Bay EPs at his Guerrilla Studios. Longtime Cocteau engineer Lincoln Fong also came out of Orbit's, um, orbit.
Orbit recalled that Maverick Records head Guy Oseary contacted him about a possible collaboration with Mad Madge, almost certainly at her request/demand. 1997 was the year that big 80s stars like U2 and David Bowie tried to hitch their wagon to the UK Techno wagon train, which industry bigwigs assumed was the Next Big Thing (plot twist: it wasn't).

Madonna has spent her entire career looking for ideas to steal, and was canny enough to realize that the Techno/Rave tsunami was turning out to be a trickle, and so set her Sauron-like eye on the Trip-Hop and Neo-Pop scenes coming out of secondary cities like Bristol. When asked why she kept her focus on the UK, she responded thusly: 

There’s a greater acceptance of cutting-edge things there. That goes for fashion, film, music. There is a real competitive thing going on in England about who can sell the most records, who can have the biggest box-office receipts. I’m much more inspired by the stuff coming out in Europe than i am out of America.

Like who?

Bjork, Everything but the Girl, Tricky and Martine (Martina Topley-Bird?).

You wouldn't think so, but Madonna was in a jam as the late 90's loomed. Her pivot to film was largely a disaster, inspiring The New York Daily News to name her "Queen of the Box-Office Bombs." Further, her album sales had cooled to a dreary but dependable double-platinum plateau. Not shabby by any yardstick, but a huge comedown from her Eighties glory days.

Put simply, Mad Madge was in danger of being tagged with that most dreaded of labels: a "legacy act." 

Madge retained a dedicated fanbase of maturing Madonnabe's and gay men, ensuring that she was still number one with a bullet in strip-mall hair salons all across America. But her big move for respectability - the film adaption of Evita - earned her critical back-pats but underperformed at the box office.

Madonna needed a credibility transfusion - stat - and one came in the form of Bristol-based Trip Hop collective Massive Attack. The group had done some remixing work on her cover of Marvin Gaye's "I Want You," and member Mushroom had reached out to her to collaborate on a new track, titled "Teardrop." 

This would be just what the doctor ordered: teaming up with a band whose stateside commercial prospects were nil, but who were the very epitome of Cool everywhere else. Unfortunately, the other members of Massive Attack had another chanteuse in mind for the new number:
Massive Attack have always looked outside the core trio for musical collaborations with kindred spirits, not just in old grooves but also in the flesh. Former Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Frazer was one: now living in Bristol, she’d previously been sounded out before Protection but hadn’t responded. Did she say why?

"Have you met Liz?" 3D splutters with laughter. "She’s very excitable and quite mad in the best way. She threw a million words into the air and we tried to grab a few and work out what she meant.”


Sweet, tiny, goofy and self-effacing, the Sibyl was (and remains) the polar opposite of Mad Madge in every conceivable way. Despite coming off as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to end all Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Elizabeth could call fire down from the stars, channel the fairy folk or sing entire choirs of angels all by herself. 

She could also sing without banks of harmonizers keeping her in approximate key and could write songs without armies of producers in tow. Unlike certain other so-called "singers" I could name.

In hindsight, the other members of Massive made exactly the right call: "Teardrop" went on to be their best-selling single, was heard by literally billions when it became the opening theme to House MD, and has entered into the canon of modern pop classics. 

But as it happens, the veto of Mad Madge kicked up a major shit-storm with her and her very powerful organization, and would also have personal consequences for the band.

Massive Attack producer Neil Davidge tells the inside story:

“Mushroom felt like he had an attachment to ‘Teardrop’, because the other guys weren’t around when we were first putting down the essential melodic ideas for that. 

We got Liz to put a vocal down on it, she came up with an early version of what’s there now. It was great, everyone was loving it, except for Mushroom – he had a very fixed idea of whist the vocal should be on that track, and it wasn’t what Liz was doing.” 

Without anyone knowing, Mushroom sent the track off to Madonna’s camp: “I got a phone call from management saying, ‘I’ve just had a phone call from Madonna’s manager, saying there’s a track that she’s been sent that she loves, and she’s wondering what’s the deal?’ 

The shit hit the fan then.”

Mushroom eventually left the band before we started 100th Window. I don't know why, but he just wasn't into Lizzie's vocal. He wasn't into the song. 
I don't know how he made the contact, but he had spoken to Madonna's manager about the track and actually sent it over to her. She'd got back in contact saying, ‘I love this; this is fantastic. Is this for real?’ 

Madonna really wanted to sing her own version of "Teardrop," which would have been an entirely different song than the one Elizabeth co-wrote. And the conflicting agendas within the band sent Davidge scrambling:

So her manager called Massive Attack's manager, and I was working on a Sunday when I got the call from Mark (the manager) saying, ‘I've spoken to Madonna's manager, and he's got this track called Teardrop, and he wants to know whether it's for real’. This was the first I or any of the other members of the band had heard about it.

When I heard that, my first thought was, ‘Okay, so if Mushroom’s going to give that particular version to Madonna, I'm going to pull together a different version of the track’ – which is what I did. So literally that Sunday, I'm like, ‘Okay, so if we don't have the elements that Mushroom brought to the track, what are we left with?’ We had the harpsichord part that I'd written, and Liz's vocals. 

I said, ‘Let's just just get rid of everything else, pretty much’.

And so Elizabeth's version of "Teardrop" was released as a single and pushed Massive's album Mezzanine into the Top 10 all across Europe and into the forefront of hipster consciousness all across the world.



One can only imagine how galling all this was to Mad Madge. She'd been struggling to create material for her own new album, which was being produced by some old 80s hands (Babyface and Rick Nowels). And with upstarts like Gwen Stefani and The Spice Girls stealing her old thunder, Madonna was finding herself staring deep into the has-been abyss. 

Collaborating with Massive Attack was her way out of the quagmire and with that exit blocked, she needed a new escape route.

Now, bear in mind that Mad Madge is universally regarded as the rudest, nastiest, pettiest and most vindictive bitch in show business. Even elders like Elton John and Cher have slammed her atrocious behavior. 

Madge even blacklisted her own brother and gave a very cold shoulder to Billy Steinberg - who'd cowritten her biggest-selling hit, "Like a Virgin" - when he introduced himself. In fact, she did a lot to tarnish her own image with her bitchy and childish behavior in the concert film, "Truth or Dare."

So there's no doubt she was stewing in her own syphilitic juices over the "Teardrop" snub. It's hard to imagine the all-time world champ of toxic narcissism doing anything but.

So how would she get her revenge?

Well, Mad Madge wasted no time in avenging the slight. As soon as she got the elbow from Massive, the Anglophiliac diva enlisted William Orbit to write her up some new songs. 

This was seen by most observers as a very weird move: Orbit had been bouncing around the London hipster scene since the early 80s but had no hits to call his own, either as a musician or as a producer. His biggest claim to fame was producing the first Beth Orton LP, which no one outside Japan ever got to hear.

In other words, Orbit was neither a fresh new face OR a hit machine.

But - of course - Orbit had had a direct connection to the Cocteau Twins, having lent them his studio and rehearsal space for the making of Tiny Dynamine and Echoes in a Shallow Bay, and also lent them his in-house engineer Lincoln Fong, who'd go on to work with the Coc's until the bitter end.

So if you needed a clue as to whom Mad Madge had trained her ire on, read this quote by Orbit himself:

Describe the material that was on your demo.

Many of the ideas were fairly formed. The germ of, say, "Drowned World" was on that tape, although if you compare it to what you hear on the album you'll hear quite a progression. The germ of "Mer Girl" was on that tape.

So, two of the first songs Mad Madge would write with Cocteau-linked Orbit would come to be titled "Drowned World" and "Mer Girl."

You with me here?

Madge not only pulled Orbit out of obscurity, she also enlisted Marius de Vries, who'd produced Massive Attack's then most recent album, Protection

Are you sensing a pattern?

If not, here's another hit: Madge also enlisted "Teardrop" director Walter Stern for the video to "Drowned World/Substitute for Love." It was an odd choice for a single and didn't exactly storm the charts (it didn't even garner an American release). 

But "Drowned World/Substitute for Love" was released the week of Elizabeth Fraser's birthday, and the backing track's ethereal mix of swirling electronics and arpeggiated guitars wouldn't sound out of place on a Cocteau Twins album at all.

With me now? 

If not, get an eyeful of the next track on Ray of Light:

Yeah, "Swim." 

How we all doing with that pattern recognition out there? All good?

So, bearing in mind that Madonna would have known full well that Elizabeth was recording "Teardrop" when she was told her former lover Jeff Buckley had drowned while taking a swim in the choppy Wolf River, take a gander at the lyrics for "Swim":

Put your head on my shoulder, baby

Things can't get any worse

Night is getting colder, sometimes

Life feels like it's a curse

I can't carry these sins on my back

Don't wanna carry anymore

I'm gonna carry this train off the track

I'm gonna swim to the ocean floor

Mmmmm... crash to the other shore

Mmmmm... swim to the ocean floor

 Let the water wash over you

Wash it all over you

Swim to the ocean floor

Remember it had been reported that Buckley had drowned under the Memphis Suspension Railway bridge, just in case the bit about the train tracks was throwing you off.

And just in case Mad Madge's intended message was not received, Ray of Light ends with the aforementioned "Mer Girl." 

Madonna has told a tale of how the song was inspired by visiting her mother's grave, which is all fine and good. Well, all fine and good until one asks what the actual mermaid connection is.

Well, let's a have a look at the lyrics and see what the mermaid connection might be:

Hid my tears, hid my fears

I tasted the rain, I tasted my tears

I cursed the angels, I tasted my fears

Huh. Lot of drops there, wouldn't you say? 

Maybe that there's a clue to the mermaid connection. I'll refrain from wondering about the burning corpse in the last stanza.

Madonna cannily marketed Ray of Light as a New Age spin on easy-listening electronica, which fit the laid-back late 90s mood to a T. It all comes off like Ethel Merman trying out her first synthesizer to my ears, but sold like hotcakes and reversed Madge's chart misfortunes.

But she went back to her worn-out old tricks for the Drowned World tour, serving up the same old-same old mix of BDSM theatrics, shameless cultural appropriation, a weird Courtney Love impersonation, and the usual cringe-inducing, contrived "transgression." 

In other words, the same tired, oppressive bullshit that we've had shoved down our throats by Madonna and her bastard stepchildren for the past 35 years.

But here's something a bit odd - the predominant fashion theme seems to have been tartan:

Designer Jean Paul Gaultier was signed up to create the costumes for the tour; his designs had a fusion of punk and Scottish fashions, geisha, cowboy and Spanish themes.

Hmm: "Drowned World." 

"Scottish fashions." 


Either way, audiences were apparently underwhelmed by the lack of Madge's old hits in the show and the whole affair was flushed from the collective consciousness by 9/11. That's show biz for you.

Later that same year, Elizabeth Fraser would be heard singing in Elvish (probably voicing Galadriel) in Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring and the next year in The Two Towers. Typecasting, in other words.

Madonna today

So why would Madonna go out of her way to throw such shade at Elizabeth Fraser, quite possibly the least divaesque diva ever? She'd never sold a speck of what Madge had - hardly anyone outside of alt.rock and muso circles had even heard of her - and the Coc's were on their very last legs at that point anyway. Wee little Lizzie was no threat whatsoever to Mad Madge, then the reigning Queen of Pop.

It doesn't make much sense until you take into account the issue of "narcissistic injury." 

From Psychology Today:

What seems to drive narcissistic individuals is something called “the Narcissistic Wound.” At some time in their life, the narcissistic individual is shamed or disgraced in such a way that they can never again truly feel good about who they are. Perhaps it is a parent or a critical coach or teacher. Perhaps a superbly timed and well-targeted putdown just at the moment when the young narcissist is acting like the star that he thinks he is.

So, believe it or not, this impressive, larger-than-life compliment magnet is really a wounded little child who constantly needs the veneration of those around him just to give himself the energy to get up in the morning and face the day.

Put simply, narcissistic personalities are hyper-sensitive to slights and carry grudges like champs. So the fact that the high and mighty Madonna had been snubbed in favor of a very weird and obscure singer like Elizabeth - and not Annie Lennox or Mariah Carey or some other fellow superstar - only made the wounds to Madge's ego all the more painful. 

Worse still, Elizabeth had already beaten Madonna to the electronica punch, having been featured on cuts from ultra-hip techno acts like Future Sound of London, Seefeel and Spooky.

A pattern, incidentally, which seems to have started all the way back in 1990, when "Song to the Siren" was sampled by electronica pioneers Orbital. 

Hmm: Siren, Orbital, William Orbit. 

Interesting, no?

UPDATE: Madonna has impeccable timing.


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