Wednesday, December 14

Spoiled Girl (1985)

On the cover of Spoiled Girl, Carly Simon strikes the most theatrical pose of all her album covers. Standing in a doorway, with one hand swept up to her head in a gesture of angst, and the other hand extended toward the camera, she seems to be demanding that the viewer halt and observe her moment of  melodrama. Yet her casual stance - with her palm resting lightly on the doorframe, her legs and shoulder revealed to good effect, and her perfectly glistening lips - suggests that we are witnessing the feigned drama of a spoiled girl. The lyrics to the title song seem to confirm this: the drama could be a dilemma about whether to wear her hair up or down, a minor tantrum about the lack of bubbles for her bath, or the frustration of having a pretty boy when you want a smart one (and vice versa). It comes as a surprise, then, to discover that there is much more at stake in this highly charged, emotionally volatile set of songs.



It comes as a surprise, too, to learn that the cover photo was shot before the album was named and even before its title song had been composed. The song "Spoiled Girl" was written after the rest of the album had been recorded, and because Carly wanted one more "rocker" for this very contemporary album. It was only then, with the new song and the cover shot in hand, that the connection between the two was realized, and the album had a name and an image.

The photographer, Duane Michals, was best known in the rock world for shooting the cover of the Police's Synchronicity (1983) album, but he was also an artistic photographer, who disliked studio settings and preferred to capture his subjects in their normal, everyday environments. Hence, his session with Carly took place in her New York City apartment. The apartment's half-opened doors, the mirror (on the right), and the high contrast lighting are a fitting environment for this album's songs, with their very different perspectives on love and lust (from the light-hearted to the deeply despairing). As on previous covers, Carly herself seems to invite our gaze and also keep some distance from us. Indeed, the outstretched hand might be taken as a warning: there is high drama to be found here, and anyone who steps forward should be prepared.

The opening song,"My New Boyfriend", is her most straightforward and celebratory love song since "The Right Thing To Do" more than a decade earlier, but the album soon moves into darker territory. Only a voice as expressive as Carly's could manage to sound confident and sexy as she pleads with a wandering lover to return ("Come Back Home"); reflective and resigned as her jealousy reaches a fever pitch ("Anyone But Me"); full of emotion as she laments a lonely emptiness ("Make Me Feel Something"); and stridently powerful even as she succumbs to unwanted desire ("Can't Give It Up"). "The Wives are in Connecticut" is perhaps the ultimate realisation of her ability (as a writer and performer) to capture complex and in some cases contradictory emotional states within a single song. It begins as a scathing profile of a cheating husband (He figures out a restaurant/where they won't be recognised), but in mid-song the husband's fantasies about his own adulterous adventures give way to his anxieties about his wife's fidelity. At this point the song's perspective changes and, for a long fade out,  the wife's voice takes centre stage, and she lists her potential lovers (how about the lifeguard at the yacht club? Or the tennis pro from Fairfield?) with a gleeful, carefree lightheartedness.

The songs on Spoiled Girl represent romance as a kind of contest; with moments of victory and passion, to be sure, but also moments of defeat, desperation and occasional bitchiness. Note the wonderful throwaway line in the otherwise upbeat "My New Boyfriend": he loves me more than you ever did.  Thus, the attention-grabbing drama of her pose on the cover is just right. We are invited to wonder if she is coming or going, inviting our attention or rebuffing us, breaking down or showing off. The songs suggest that the answer may be "all of the above". Spoiled Girl reveals higher highs and lower lows than her earlier work. In the climax of "Anyone But Me", when she sings I wish you had never loved anyone but me, she growls never in a manner that reveals a raw and mercurial emotional state. For better or for worse, depending on the taste of the listener, we are several steps beyond the calmly delivered insights about jealousy heard in "We Have No Secrets".

On the cover, her mini-skirt and off-the-shoulder top convey the youthful, trendy flavor and tempo of the album's music, and so too does the back-leaning retro-chic lettering. Spoiled Girl is a wholehearted move into Eighties-style power pop - with layers of bouncy electronic keyboards, jangly guitars, and prominent percussion - and it represents a significant move away from the acoustic directness of her early music. It was obviously and unashamedly conceived as a multi-platinum, chart-storming pop success, and several of the songs were clearly arranged with the pop charts in mind. The brazenly romantic ballad "Tonight and Forever" was a gift to adult contemporary radio, while the pacy and compelling "Come Back Home" and "Can't Give It Up" should have topped every chart that Billboard compiles.





Yet her new label, Epic Records, decided that the first single would be the one song that she did not write herself. It was an odd choice: "Tired of Being Blonde" is the album's least tuneful song, and its third-person narration (She left her credit cards under her goodbye note...) is detached and uninvolving. A wildly overcooked video for the song, with the well meaning but wholly inexperienced Jeremy Irons behind the camera, only added to the sense of detachment. In its four minute running time, a storyline overflowing with mini-vignettes and visual gimmickry unfolds as Carly dons every imaginable blonde wig. The video for the second single, "My New Boyfriend", was only slightly more restrained. It cast her as Cleopatra on the Nile, Sheena the Jungle Princess dancing with the natives, and a space-age beauty in love with a robot. Needless to say, these were all parts she played with gusto, but what seems to have been lost amidst these bids for airtime on MTV is that Carly's fans like and admire her: as a musical confidante and as a known and consistent personality. The idea of dressing her up in videos as a chameleon akin to Annie Lennox was therefore misguided, and so too was the advertising that insisted she herself was the spoiled girl (see, for example, the advertisement below). She made the point in interviews that the song "Spoiled Girl" most definitely was not about her.  She had taken enough flak, as a rock star who was also the daughter of a prominent and wealthy family, and she had no interest in adding fuel to that fire. The record-buying, radio-listening, MTV-watching public was understandably confused, and they decided to steer clear of Spoiled Girl. The singles stalled and the album was her least popular to date.



Subsequently, no summary of her career has been complete without reference to this album as her creative "nadir", as a sign of her spoiled status as a pop star (because it features several high-profile producers), and as an embarrassing failure. It has become the black sheep in the family of Carly Simon albums. One has to wonder, though, whether critics listened to the album before they recited the familiar list of its crimes. True, it is certainly not her bestselling album. It is not an easy album, either; it is a little too highly strung for that. But it does have a striking thematic unity, as well as an irresistably catchy musical momentum. Any sympathetic listener would surely be intrigued. Like many black sheep, then, Spoiled Girl is a little awkward at times, and it lacks some of the decorum and poise of its siblings. But, also like many black sheep, it is misunderstood, unjustly maligned and the victim of an exaggerated bad reputation. It is high time for it to be brought back into the family fold and allowed the chance of a fair hearing.