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Pop Life and Afterlife: Madonna and Aaliyah as Dancers. 9/4/2001.

by Rachel Levin
September 4, 2001

Pop Life and Afterlife: Madonna and Aaliyah as Dancers


9/4/2001

By now it is old news that the pop music icons we revere as a culture more often than not lack the singing ability that distinguishes professionals from amateurs.


Indeed, the outpouring of grief over the tragic death of R&B/hip-hop singer Aaliyah last Saturday and the successful television debut on HBO of Madonna's new "Drowned World" tour last Sunday reminded me of just how little exceptional vocal talent actually matters when it comes to audience reverence of contemporary musicians. Despite the solid popularity of these two women performers, reviews of Aaliyah in the media often alluded to her mediocre voice and forgettable songs, while Madonna has never been particularly praised for the quality of her voice in the two decades she has been making multi-Platinum albums.


Yet, where other critics might bemoan their popularity despite lackluster voices as evidence of the sad state of culture in America or indict the public for their unrefined tastes, I see it as evidence that the core of their talent and many others like them lies in an entirely different sphere:


Dance and movement.


Though they both have sung and recorded music, I don't necessarily think of Madonna or Aaliyah as singers first and foremost. Rather, I consider them both dancers who have provided their own soundtracks to which they move.


Madonna's taped concert was a showcase of movement. She is a chameleon who is not only able to modify her hair color and clothing to represent different cultures and subcultures, but is also able to interpret them through her body. She began the concert in grungy industrial attire, complete with tattered clothes and a postmodern interpretation of suspenders attached to her pants that criss-crossed behind her knees. Accompanied by a variety of androgynous-looking dancers and contortionists, she gyrated to the electronica she popularized on her past two albums. The second segment of the show was a complex mix of Asian dance and martial art á la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Outfitted in a wig of straight jet black hair and a red kimono with giant sleeves, Madonna danced choreography that simulated a dramatic battle between a man and a woman. She emerged in full cowboy attire for the third segment: cowboy hat, boots, jeans, and leather chaps. Here, the choreography was an energetic cross between country line dancing and the funky hip movements of hip-hop. Take four: Madonna in her Latin mode, wearing a flowing backless black dress over black pants, easily slipping into the movements of salsa and flamenco. Ever the gender-bender, Madonna was led in her erotic salsa number by a woman while singing a Spanish-language rendition of "La Isla Bonita." Finally, she exchanged the dress for a black T-shirt with rhinestones spelling "mother" on the front and "father" on the back, and finished the concert with her signature brand of pop/jazz choreography, dancing in unison with her two background singers.


Think what you will of her voice, but this woman can MOVE.


She can move seamlessly across cultures, across space, across time. And she doesn't move mindlessly; the choices she makes as a dancer often expose the gender constructions that underlie the very dances she selects. From watching her roll on the ground in a wedding dress singing "Like A Virgin" at the first MTV movie awards to taking in the montage of movement in last Sunday's concert, the pleasure of Madonna lies largely in watching her move. When she's dancing, it almost doesn't matter how or what she is singing.
In her brief 22 years, Aaliyah certainly didn't have time to amass the bank account of movement styles that Madonna has over the years. Aaliyah moved like she was slipping through the shadows. You had to work hard to catch a glimpse of her movement, scattered as it was through the MTV-editing style of her music videos. Perhaps that's why watching her move was so appealing; you felt like you had just sighted a fawn darting through the trees. Peering out from underneath the glossy black bangs that always shaded her left eye, she interpreted the often sharp and choppy movements of hip-hop smoothly, her slim body gliding across steps like the snake she interacted with in her recent video for "We Need a Resolution." The video for "Try Again" showcased Aaliyah dancing Chorus Line-style jazz with a cane and hip-hop flair. Her movements were sophistocated, classy, sultry.


I find the rhetoric surrounding Aaliyah's death somewhat disturbing in its treatment of her dancing. Over and over, people kept saying how tragic it was that a girl who eschewed the raunchy and overtly sexual movements of R&B stars like Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown should have lost her life. To me, this implies that somehow the death of these more in-your-face performers would have been less tragic. Aaliyah, in contrast to these "sluts" (as implied by the media), was innocent and can therefore be immortalized as such. The release of 22 doves at her memorial service, each signifying one year of her life, epitomized this construction of Aaliyah as pure and almost childlike. I think this rhetorical categorization of both Aaliyah and her R&B peers is evidence that pop stars (females especially) are evaluated just as much on how they move as on how they sing. And even though Aaliyah did indeed embody a sophistocation and subtlety in her dance movements, it is completely false that she side-stepped sexuality. Furthermore, it is still upsetting that women who dance in overtly sexual ways are devalued in our culture (like Madonna for much of her career) despite our fascination with them.
This is not to say that either Madonna or Aaliyah or their other pop counterparts would ever make it to the top of a list of "best dancers" in the world. Rather, the impact that Madonna, Aaliyah, and other female dancing pop stars-Jennifer Lopez and Janet Jackson just to name a couple-make in our culture is largely due to the way their bodies move through space. Their dancing bodies convey confidence, sensuality, mystery, playfulness, and pain in ways that are unique and compelling. Perhaps this is why so many of these singing performers make the transition to acting; acting is a natural extension of conveying character and emotion through the body. Aaliyah made her acting debut in last year's Romeo Must Die, and was slated to appear in the sequel to The Matrix.
Sadly, to borrow from novelist Arundahti Roy, there is now an Aaliyah-shaped "hole-in-the-world." A drowned world, indeed.

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