Year in Music: Lady day and night

Rehab the good girl–bad girl paradigm

Judging from the hoo-ha on the message boards and the late-blooming stories coursing through the mainstream media, this may have been the year the music industry business model truly broke. In a boldly utopian and rawly realistic mood, Radiohead took their music and declared they didn't want play with major labels any more — let the PayPal bucks fall where they may into the passed digital hat; Kanye West and 50 Cent allowed a gamers' pseudo–sales war to eclipse any artistic statements they might've been making; and Britney Spears's family-court and fashion disasters climaxed in a widely televised moment of lambasted lacklusterness before she was left, well, alone. Music sales slumped further as live music sales stirred. No wonder Madonna signed with Live Nation — save that black concert T for the Karl Stockhausen memorial, RIP.

It's tough to find obsession material amid the music business coverage: the sounds that set you dreaming, the blood pounding, the ankles caving, and the thrills coursing down the mosh pit–spindled spine. Speaking to Nick Cave came close to triggering dry heaves for yours truly, but his all-too-human, literate gentleman–degenerate charm simply lanced a boil of long-festering obsession rather than sent me off on reveries of rabid fandom. Better to wrap my flaming neuroses around the highly visible good girl–bad girl archetypes embedded in the Alicia (Keys) and Amy (Winehouse) Show. Here's to AA — let's have another guzzle of Wino's "Rehab."

Keys and Winehouse plugged into some deep doo-doo down in my teenage doghouse: I was the good-girl grind who chomped Chopin piano études when I wasn't biting AP credits. OK, I never wept openly when I got a B, nor did I turn down a Columbia acceptance letter like the Keys-ter, but I could relate to the snippet of Nocturne no. 20 in C-sharp Minor that opens this month's guilty obsession, As I Am (J). All about uplift and upholstered with a-mite-too-pristine, carefully calibrated R&B pop, AIA slides seductively through the holiday hokum with its anthemic, Linda Perry–cowritten "Superwoman," the Prince-like "Like You'll Never See Me Again," and the no-muss lustiness of "I Need You." AIA lacks overall heat and inspired originality; the fact that Keys locks in with that other do-right prodigy, John Mayer, speaks volumes. Rather than hook into her natural-woman, way earthy, baby-blues-mama fire live, the type that threatened to softly blast Beyoncé off the Oracle Arena stage three years ago, La Keys is much too good a girl, making all the right moves, to break with the machine. Tellingly, she's framed by a music-box mechanism in the video for AIA's first single, "No One." Agonizingly, ecstatically curled to within an inch of Diana Ross's Mahogany, Keys stares into the distance like an anesthetized, perfectly blank, pretty doll.

Likewise, I can completely identify with the bad-girl train wreck embodied by Winehouse, howling in a red bra on the street and perpetually hiking up her low-riding denim in concert. Who hasn't dreamed of cutting class, reviving trash, and dropping the high-achiever act? It's far more dramatic to star in your own disaster movie, all puffy and tatted with throwback cuties, teased like girl-grouped Ronnie Spector and girl gang–inspired Priscilla Presley by way of Tura Satana, while tacked out in yesterday's greaser girl garb. Winehouse is the politically incorrect, highly visible dark side of the feminine pop principle; she's both original and so very not — what with her borrowed looks, band, and sound. Embroiled in a destructo-dance with her Pete Doherty–ish bad-boy hubby, Blake Fielder-Civil, Winehouse has been imploding in the spotlight since the year began with a bang of hype for Back to Black (Island/Universal).

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