Pop finds its groove on memory lane

Posted: Jun 09, 2003 12:00 AM

Madonna hasn't been "like a virgin" for a long time, but the Material Girl is desperate for new material to keep her warm in a cooling spotlight. Sean Penn, her ex, is in trouble, too. He needs a pen name. Both have been eclipsed by events that have cast them deep into the shadows.

Madonna lost her direction and edge looking for the zeitgeist. Her new album dropped off Billboard's Top Twenty after only three weeks. Her pop vulgarity once tapped into the rebellious spirit of the times, but her current sensibility is more suited to the '60s.

Her ex is in the wrong decade, too. He's locked in lawsuits with the language of the 1950s, accusing movie producer Steve Bing of "blacklisting" him because he spoke out against the war in Baghdad. Penn is an "oldcomer" to bad publicity, but Madonna managed to get out of the marriage unscathed by his bad press. She even profited it by it, by looking sympathetic.

But now the national mood has changed and she's getting bad publicity on her own. She cancelled a music video of herself decked out in army fatigues, aping Che Guevara, throwing a hand-grenade at a George W. Bush lookalike. One music insider calls her persona a "tired shtick," and she offended the lefties by trying to capitalize on one of their cherished revolutionary heroes, selling nothing more than herself.

Trendsetters with a sharp ear for the buzz hear another message in the decline of Madonna's pop appeal. The newest generation of teenagers and young adults are discovering - horrors! - music their parents and even grandparents enjoy.

"The Great American Songbook, as well as the styles of traditional jazz and swing, are experiencing a tremendous resurgence" observes John Berlau in Insight magazine. The country may be in a mood for eloquent reflection, for grace and wit in language and a soothing and moral elegance in attitude. You could call it comfort music. Cole Porter lives.

When Diana Krall, a Grammy winner in 2000, released a new album called "The Look of Love" six days after Sept. 11, she nixed the usual publicity tour and joined her neighbors in New York, two miles from ground zero, and sought spiritual sustenance in church, in the somber strains of Brahms' Requiem and in tears of lonely grief. The album, grasping the spirit of the times, tugging on the heart strings with a fresh tempo and moving style, sold a million copies.

Diana Krall's albums embrace the old standards by Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin, appealing to universal sentiments of the love of life, the joy of love, the exquisite thrill of beauty. She brings romance up to date with a voice that one critic likens to "wild honey with a spoonful of scotch."

Norah Jones, 24, whose soft jazz-soul sound beat out Bruce Springsteen for a Grammy earlier this year, has found the groove of lyrical lushness. Her album "Come Away With Me" has sold more than 6 million copies, rising to the top of the Billboard Internet charts on her popularity with a young audience.

She sings "The Nearness of You," written by Hoagy Carmichael in 1937, with the care of earlier artists as varied as Frank Sinatra, James Taylor and the Rolling Stones. My high school sweetheart and I called it "our song," a custom long gone for lots of reasons, not the least of which is the scarcity of tender lyrics. (What young couple could spoon listening to Eminem sing of his hate for "ho's" and "fags"?) Teenagers listening to "Nearness of You" imagine it's new because that's the sentiment they yearn to hear.

Trends are always difficult to recognize when they're right on us. Each generation searches for its own voice in popular music, but maybe we're finally passing through a particularly degrading time, when both lyrics and rhythms articulated anger rather than love. Maybe we want to be touched with a little tenderness again. Maybe nihilism and narcissism have finally reached the dead end they deserve.

Keely Smith, now a mellow 75, once sang with her husband, Louis Prima. She's enjoying a renewed solo career, enchanting audiences young and old. She works sorcery with "That Old Black Magic," but she brings down (up?) the house when she limns the last number on her newest album, "The Star-Spangled Banner."

To quote Diana Krall quoting Gershwin, "S'Wonderful."