PRINT December 1984


MALCOLM MCLAREN IS A NEW sort of artist, your Barbarian Renaissance Man, the missing link between Leonardo and Conan. He has been the enfant terrible of the fashion world in his collaborations with Vivienne Westwood, and he set the music world on its good ear with his creation, the Sex Pistols. More recently McLaren has been the front man of his own schemes. His first effort as a recording artist, the album Duck Rock (1982), was an international hit as well as an unprecedented global-culture meltdown. The album combined black American street music, hip hop, with such unlikely elements as Cuban voodoo drummers, Appalachian square dance fiddlers, and a Zulu chorus. McLuhan described the Global Village; McLaren made its party record.

Duck Rock was a hard act to follow, but McLaren has succeeded in producing something even more exotic with his new album of opera pieces called Butterfly Ball (1984). Here his collaborators are not Johnny Rotten or voodoo priests but Giacomo Puccini, Georges Bizet, and Wolfgang Mozart. He has combined some of opera’s greatest hits with some of disco’s favorite beats.

“Madam Butterfly,” a single released from Butterfly Ball, is a hip hop version of the aria “Un bel dì vedremo,” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, 1904.

A chorus swells; it’s not exactly human. There’s something metallic about it; it hovers over the chord. A perfect minimal funk beat arrives, echoing in dub space, the kind of beat a break dancer might work wonders to. Instead there’s a melody—a pretty refrain played by a harmonica or its facsimile. Then the narrator begins: “Back in Nagasaki I got married to Cho Cho San . . . That was her name back in those days . . . And when I was her man . . . I’m going back to visit her . . . She got a problem . . . she got a little Cho Cho . . . Cho Cho San was her name . . . And this is her tale of woe . . . Take it away Cho Cho!”

Enter Madam Butterfly: the aria soars over the beat, the gorgeous voice and the beat box making an oddly natural match. At a break in the aria Madam Butterfly the rapper is introduced, a sweet nubile city voice, speaking Cho Cho’s part, translated faithfully but wild: “Freaking out he’s come to get me . . . My feet are stuck and just won’t let me . . . Run to him do I dare. . . . Madam Butterfly don’t blow it. . . .”

Pinkerton, U.S. Navy, is played by Malcolm McLaren: “I’m a bounder,” he says. We know the story. Pinkerton has another wife back home across the Pacific.

In the chorus the soul Butterfly sings: “Gotta have something to believe in . . . My white honky I do miss him . . . Someday soon hell come around . . . Just to stop my nervous breakdown. . . .”

The aria resumes, gaining depth and passion. The operatic Butterfly sings with a darkening hope. The rapper Butterfly answers with soulful courage: “I’ll wait for him with unshakable faith.” The aria continues, gaining height and force. As it hits the high climax there is an echoed explosion, the beat implodes, and the tune ebbs away. Butterfly’s death is an implosion triggered from the outside, by a touch. A flurry of chords shimmers into silence. It is modern dance music, it is hip hop; it is also opera. It is fully both, but it’s more. It is something new. The idea of it sounds terribly camp, but the work is transcendently camp. The humor and stylishness do not detract from the beauty of the song; they give it vivid focus.

I asked McLaren how he found opera. McLaren: “I was working in Paris putting together a fashion show and looking for music. I got inspired by opera as being something very grand. I was working with very street-oriented clothing and I didn’t want to make it appear too baroque and pompous, so it was a question of bringing it down to something very accessible. The most obvious thing was the tough, brutal electropop of Manhattan, black r&b, what you call hip hop I suppose. It was the marriage of hip hop and opera that I decided to do in this fashion tape by cutting up opera with the Smurf and those Tommy Boy records. I got such a wild round of applause from these bourgeois ladies sitting in the stores in Paris, watching the girls gallivant down the catwalk, it just locked in, and I realized it was an inspiring idea.”

When I heard McLaren was doing opera it occurred to me that he might have turned to it as a way to approach video music. Today pop records are often made hits by their MTV videos, although good records often result in terrible videos. Videos often take off on a tangent, with the plot line having only a slight relationship to the story line of the song. Operas were the first music videos in a way—the first shows containing great music. It seemed that perhaps McLaren was going to opera as a source of great storytelling songs with proven visual appeal. In fact McLaren’s first opera video, “Madam Butterfly,” does not illustrate the opera. I had expected to see the action of the opera, but staged McLaren style. McLaren: “Everybody thought that. Maybe it’s my perversity, but I thought, if I go for that story it’s going to take time to do it right. As a cinematic short it would be very difficult to make it work in an afternoon of shooting. I realized I couldn’t do that, so I thought, I just have to go for an emotion.”

The video starts as an abstract: white, not flat, but deep and changing. For about a minute that’s all there is, then there are glimpses of a procession of women walking through steam. They appear to be nude. When the steam rises a bit we see that they are in flesh-colored leotards. Then there is a tableau in a tiled Turkish steam-room. Clad alike, hair dressed alike, made up alike, the women look stunned, emotionally drained. Their minds are elsewhere. They lie down. In close up we see that they are sweating, or are they crying?

The movement is very slow. The blink of an eye is an event. Another scene is a tableau behind a pool, in front of a window. On the window sill is a marble bust—it must stand for Pinkerton. The few basic scenes interchange. A woman sitting on a bed reads a letter, her friend comforts her. A woman showers, sexier than any shampoo ad, taking out some distant anxiety on her hair. One woman massages another, while behind them, at a sink, another washes one forearm. In the first view of this scene the one being massaged is draped, in the next she is nude and oiled, in the next she is covered with lather. In all of them the third woman mysteriously washes that one spot on her arm.

Sometimes the women pass by in a line. At one point they emerge from a bath as if from a group baptism. In a dormitory room they recline, turn with distant agitation, arise, and exit, dragging their drape sheets. They move with the studied precision and grace of runway models, which they must be. Wearing no fashions, they show the art of modeling.

The most common critical complaint about rock videos is that the images they present detract from the images that a listener conjures up when listening to music. After seeing a video often those predetermined images supplant the imagined images of the listener. McLaren has conquered that problem here. He has made a transparent video. Although the images are as strong and sexy as any others in rock video, they are ephemeral. The images are referential. Even if you dream of them, they are dreaming the song. The song and its literal images are present only in the minds of the women we see. Although the visible images are strong, they are static and defer to the invisible images. The women are dreamers and we seek their dream. Our own reverie is accelerated. The images are almost like a hypnotic drug.

"I didn’t want to tell the story literally. I thought it might wind up looking like René and Renata, one of these very clichéd love romances. I made it ever so slow moving. It made the song appear very fast, really up tempo. You’re just watching these girls crying, waiting, looking very aggravated. The makeup was produced for that purpose. They’re waiting, maybe waiting for this bloke, and it got across the atmosphere of the song. Instead of taking over the song the video sits underneath it. It allows you to relax and dream, to get into the song. I like it for that; I thought it worked. But it doesn’t fit into the format of what people have now discovered has certain rules. How come there’s nobody singing? Where’s the star? Where’s McLaren? Where’s the opera singer? Where’s the story?

“Puccini was the last major opera composer and most of his stories are about girls who get fucked over. They’re always about young girls who either through their trustful love get betrayed or through their passionate jealousy end up killing themselves or getting their boyfriends killed. They seem very right to create something on the radio now. They seem to have all the passion that you want again. The melodies are the icing on the cake. I’m always saying I’d rather work with Puccini right now than have to harness some so-called Elvis Costello, although he ain’t bad, or some hitmaking pop writer. Working with Puccini you’re working with someone with a lot of class.”

I wondered if the operas McLaren adapted for the album suggested the dance rhythms he used, if the dance beats were inherent or added on.

McLaren: "I had to experiment with rhythm. Most things from that time were played in waltz time, very much in threes [beats to the bar] and now we’re into this four thing and people cannot cope with threes. Not yet. Maybe the waltz will come back. Then it would be a field day for [Johann] Strauss. Sometimes you’d have the most brilliant aria, but the timing was all over the place and unless I bastardized it completely I couldn’t use it.

“I didn’t think anybody would dance to Madam Butterfly. I thought it might be difficult. But people do, they love to dance to it. If someone likes a song maybe they dance to it anyway, no matter what the damn beat is. All of this dance music thing is nonsense. There’s this special thing called dance music; you can only dance to it if it’s 144 beats per minute. That’s rubbish. People have been dancing for thousands of years. They didn’t have to know it was 144 beats before they stepped on the dance floor. It’s lunacy. People will be inventive if they want to dance to a song. I’m not a believer in what is known as ‘dance music.’ It’s a racket. It’s just that people tend to love rules.”

Could MTV bring back opera? McLaren: "Absolutely. What you have on TV at the moment is a very crass technique of people polishing their nails and getting all their chewing in progress, throwing out tons of imagery with no sense, just to vibrate a bit on the screen. I think music video will probably bring back lyric writing. When you didn’t have video you never cared about lyrics. It was the beat. Now I think people will get very conscious of lyrics. Story will unfold and the marriage between the lyric writer and the video director and the record producer will become one, and the artist will become the actor.

“Francesco Rosi’s Carmen film [Bizet’s Carmen, 1984] has produced a rash of Carmen fever and with it a style which has permeated Paris, and London is now getting very operatic. Jean-Paul Gaultier, the French designer, is quite operatic, although it may be unconsciously. But the whole flamboyant atmosphere—Paris, Germany, Europe loves that; it’s fulfilling their 19th-century ideals. It’s the ‘Empire Strikes Back’ mentality.”

Glenn O’Brien lives in New York. He writes regularly for Artforum, and writes the column “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat” for Interview magazine as well.