Saturday, March 27, 2010

"High School Confidential" by Rough Trade (1980)

It can be hard sometimes being a Canadian. Especially in the knowledge that your most famous celebrity exports to the world tend to be manufactured MOR (Celine Dion, Shania Twain) or manufactured 'alternative' (Alanis Morrisette, Avril Lavigne). It certainly gives the world the impression that Canada has little to offer except for bland dumbing-down genericisations of American music.

But to hell with all that. We have Carole Pope.

The most effortlessly cool person on the planet, Carole Pope was the lead singer for Rough Trade in the late seventies and early eighties. They're all but forgotten now, but back in the day... they were something special.

"High School Confidential" is their most well-known track and, though they have a handful of greats, their best. I must admit the Rough Trade catalogue is a bit threadbare and some of it hasn't aged well. But this? Well, this is something special.

Musically, it's definitely an early-eighties keyboard-fest. The best thing about the music is that strutting -tempo. It's an enjoyable construct, with a decent synth-riff, but it's irrelevant. It's Carole Pope that matters. Throughout the song, she lays on that paradoxical mixture of cool detachment and passion that only she can do so well. She's telling a story long told - of a sexually attractive high school girl who knows she's attractive and knows exactly what advantages that affords her. The strut of the rhythm I mentioned is the strut she affects walking down the corridor. The song practically gives off steam, not just from the hot chick but more importantly from Carole Pope's combination of helpless submission to the girl's charms and seething jealousy of them. All under the guise of distant observer.

1980 was fully thirty years ago now, and it seems ridiculous to talk about how groundbreaking it was to write a song from an openly lesbian perspective. Apparently the song was intended to confuse and not be overt, and I can remember my father, even though I was only five, trying to figure out the sexual ambiguity in the song. It doesn't seem very ambiguous to me, and didn't even then. 30 years changes a lot, and now the expression of desire from one female to another seems less surprising than the forthright way it's expressed in this song. But that in itself is still, well, if not surprising than at least compelling. Certainly getting a song this direct onto the radio was an accomplishment, and I think its legacy survives in a much more open mindset these days. I think you can draw a pretty direct line from this to, say, Peaches. And where I don't say Peaches couldn't have existed without Carole Pope, I do think she might have been less conventionally accepted, at least up here in Canada.

Carole Pope couldn't kill off the Celines and Avrils. But she helped create a climate where people of real worth and integrity (not to mention coolness) can exist alongside them. Even if no one outside of Canada ever hears them.
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