Malcolm McLaren can't sing, doesn't play an instrument, and isn't a songwriter in the traditional sense, which is an odd combination of talents for a recording artist to lack. His musical failings are more than balanced by his conceptual genius, however, for when it comes to playing with ideas, McLaren is a virtuoso. Unable to compose his own melodies, McLaren takes the most obvious alternative, stealing from others; but by dropping his pilfered pop songs into settings that radically redefine them, he manages to transform plagiarism into art.
For his first American single, McLaren combined an Appalachian square dance number with the latest trends from the New York hip hop scene, and came up with "Buffalo Gals," one of the most successful scratch records of 1983. True, its success had far more to do with the talents of producer Trevor Horn and rappers The World Famous Supreme Team, but that was beside the point. What mattered was that McLaren had the ideas, manipulated the talent and took the credit.
His first album, "Duck Rock," applied that approach to a variety of traditional music forms from Africa and the Americas, but failed to match the inspired juxtaposition of "Buffalo Gals." Worse, some of the "primitive" talent McLaren used got annoyed and sued him when he usurped not only all the credit but all the money as well. So McLaren, looking for a new, equally outrageous (and potentially less litigious) idea, came up with the notion of crossing dance rock with grand opera. The result is his new album, "Fans" (Island 7 90242 -- 1).
This is not "rock opera," as the Who's "Tommy" claims to be; rather, it's the same sort of assemblage McLaren concocted for "Buffalo Gals." For each of the six selections here, a famous aria (all but one by Puccini) sung by some young unknown is slipped into a dance track to highlight whatever story line McLaren has built into his lyrics. Theoretically, McLaren's own words would take a poke at the operas he borrowed from by putting the drama in ludicrous contemporary idioms, so that Cho-Cho San is left referring to Pinkerton as "my white honky."
Trouble is, far too many opera directors have done exactly the same thing -- Jonathan Miller's gangster-era "Rigoletto" at the Met was but one recent example -- for McLaren's feeble attempts to shock. The title tune, built around the conceit of an opera fan writing her favorite tenor, who can be heard in the background warbling "Nussun Dorma," makes a good point, since the letter being written could as easily have been meant for a Duran Duran as a Domingo. But that's about as far as McLaren goes when it comes to meaningful content. Other selections, ranging from a painfully obvious "Carmen" (built, of course, from "L'oiseau rebelle") to a curiously pointless "Lauretta" (adapted from "O mio rabbino caro"), are enlivened neither by McLaren's cliche'-ridden lyrics nor by coproducer Robbie Kilgore's listless dance tracks.
The sole exception is "Madama Butterfly," and it's interesting to note why. To begin with, on all the other selections, the operatic vocals are locked into the same beat as the rest of the music, lending a sort of Hooked on Opera effect; on "Madama Butterfly" by contrast, soprano Betty Ann White is allowed to shape her phrases freely, so that even though she often ends up out of sync with the rhythm tracks, her singing is immensely more affecting. Further, the instrumental head is easily the catchiest on the album, and no wonder -- according to the fine print, it's the work of Stephen Hague and Walter Turbitt, not McLaren and Kilgore. As usual, McLaren's ideas work best when they're realized for him by other people.
Laurie Anderson, on the other hand, is a strict do-it-yourselfer, and unlike McLaren's "Fans," which turns a single idea into an album of songs, her five-record, "United States Live" (Warner Brothers 1-25192-5) marshals a whole army of revelations, observations and one-liners into a single, sprawling work. And though "United States Live" is not opera, it does have a libretto (available separately for almost the cost of the records from Harper & Row); moreover, the more than 4 1/2 hours of intensive listening it demands calls for the sort of stamina usually associated with Wagner's Ring.
On the whole, though, "United States Live" is as flawed as it is ambitious. Anderson's original "United States" was decidedly an audio-visual work, and even though Anderson took that into account when scaling the piece down for vinyl, there are still long stretches that offer precious little to the listener.
Anderson's deadpan conceptualism and techno-savvy wit is entertaining in its way, but ultimately proves hollow. Despite all her intellectual flash -- the stagy absurdity, the transforming magnification of everyday objects, the signifiers without reference -- Anderson is all technique and no content. Of course, there's always the possibility that in spending so much time not saying anything Anderson is trying to make a point about life in America, but that's doubtful. After all, Laurie Anderson may be good with ideas, but she's not that clever.