Life - October 16, 1970


Warm welcome for a human campfire

by Albert Goldman

Where's it at this year? The answer comes in one mellifluous word -- Melanie. This frightened Kewpie doll voice trailing a big, strapping girl in brightly patched Bedouin gowns is the hottest little property on the song block. Her Russian sunflower face blares from every record shop window, her Parisian gutter-belt tones honk from every radio, the sale of her records, the tale of her concerts, her noble incursion inside the police lines to perform at Powder Ridge, her helicopter descent on the Isle of Wight all proclaim the same truth. Melanie is moulded from the Styrofoam of pop greatness.

Go to one of her concerts and witness her cult. Her fans worship her like a peasant Madonna, laying little gifts at her feet -- a couple of burning votive lights for Candles in the Rain, a box of animal crackers for the song of that title, skimpy bunches of flowers with the florist's paper still around the stalks. A massive Nadelman statue sprung to life, she sits in a wooden chair thunking her guitar, stomping her foot, going red in the face and hollering those tunes like a juiced-up gypsy wailing a cante jondo.

Is she any good? The question is much too naive. It presupposes unambiguous values and a single scale of measurement which discriminating listeners simply won't buy. Years ago Melanie would have been hooted off every Amateur Night in the city, given the gong, the hook, the martyrdom of public humiliation. Her first hit, Beautiful People, set a new low for self-caricature. She sounded like a female Buddy Hackett with possible orthopaedic complications and post-LSD feeblemindedness. Yet the record cut a broad swath on airwaves crowded with masterpieces by the Beatles, the Doors and the Airplane. It showed that Melanie knew the hip word for schmaltz, that she was destined to pick up where Tiny Tim left off.

In this year of shrivelling standards, she suddenly loomed at the top of the chart by parlaying a gospel anthem, Lay It Down, with a homely evocation of Edith Piaf, Look What They Done to My Song, Ma! The result is an instant demand for her presence on every campus in the country. There the front-row kids cannibalise her with cameras and tape recorders, adore her in the best junior high fanmag manner, and vault nimbly onto the stage to gather round her like a human campfire that warms nice boys in beards and girls in blouses scented with patchouli.

Melanie's odd sexless appearance, her clompy mannerisms, her shy strangled speeches, her giggly girlie jokes, the absolute amateurism of her show make her the perfect entertainer for the more immature members of a generation that likes to see its heroes hung up, embarrassed and off-key. These kids can't stand professionalism because it makes them feel inferior. The spectacle of someone exercising triumphantly a hard-earned skill doesn't always inspire them with admiration. Yet these same kids are instinctive egalitarians, brought up to believe that they're just as good as the next fellow. So the logical resolution of the conflict is to adopt as hero the Schlemiel, the Ugly Duckling, the Supergoof -- all those types that distinguish themselves in ways that are not threatening or hard to match with personal identification.

The grand result for show business is a new archetype based on that spectacle familiar from kiddy shows, the circuses and kindergartens: the funny clown or the nice Mother Goose Lady gathers the children around her and tells stories, plays tricks and sings songs until all the boys and girls feel safe and happy. If this seems like a meager dispensation for the theater, where once the magical arts of song, dance, mime and comedy were practiced by men and women of consummate ability and lifelong dedication, you ought to bear in mind that wherever there is a tear in the fabric of quality a fad appears to patch it. Melanie is just such a crazy-quilt patch.

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