Pop Music: Diana
July 12, 1980
Among the pop talents that surfaced during disco's heyday to make the transition into the post-disco era, there are none more interesting than Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the masterminds behind Chic and Sister Sledge, and the writers and producers of Diana Ross's latest album, Diana.
That Diana has been red-hot on the dance floors and record charts since its release is not a surprise. It's a summit meeting of two generations of cool black urban pop. As the lead singer of the Supremes, Ross epitomized the upscale funkiness of Motown in the 1960s, and Chic has done the same for disco. Actually disco is, in some ways, nothing more than the 1970s transmutation of Motown. While Ross, after leaving the Supremes, wandered through mainstream Las Vegas show-biz success and glamour, disco was busily reworking those same glitzy elements back into a more accessible, less ponderous and livelier format. As is often the case with pop culture careers, Wanting to Make It and Making It generate excitement, but Having Made It is dull. Success is a thrill, but Established Wealth is resented. A restrained production like Diana is consequently a smart career move by Ross, and the ultimate recognition for Rodgers and Edwards.
There's one nagging problem about matching Diana and disco, however. Disco generally, and the Rodgers-Edwards sound in particular, are more anonymous vocally than classic Motown. Groups like the Supremes were restrained--Motown wasn't Memphis soul music or Chicago blues after all, it was pop --but it had identifiable voices and projected defined personas. Rodgers and Edwards have a sound all right--in fact all their songs sound alike--but Chic's vocals are light staccato chants, and if there's any personality, it's one that's cautious about imposing itself on the outside world.
From her earliest days as a kittenish sex object, Ross has been restrained too, but she's still more rooted in a gospel-influenced style than Chic. So her own gifts were better served on her last album, The Boss, by old Motown stablemates Ashford and Simpson. Yet Diana is the better album. Why? Partly it's because restraint is just what the pop doctor orders for pop personalities who are beginning to be spread too thinly across the front pages of mass culture. Partly it's because restraint implies a reassuring post-nouveau-riche self-discipline for Ross as a female sex object. But it's also because Rodgers and Edwards still churn out fresh, interesting songs no matter howmany projects they work on.
This is music that sounds superficial until you listen to it closely and find out it's saying something, a welcome change from the art rock of the early 1970s, which appeared to be saying something until you listened closely and found out it was superficial. It's also music that sounds incomplete, until you listen again and find its restraint adds tension (it is great dance music after all).
Because restraint is so central to the Rodgers-Edwards sound, I prefer their work with the more anonymous Chic, or the renovations they sometimes perform on more obscure acts, like their current single, "Spacer," for Sheila and B. Devotion, a second-string European disco group. Diana Ross is an icon with a lot of cultural baggage, but I doubt that one percent of The Nation's readers are even aware of Sheila and B. Devotion. In a pop form often burdened by its past and its symbols and superstars, it's an interesting artistic ploy to bestow great material on essentially anonymous groups, or to create an essentially anonymous group--Chic--yourself.
It's also a sign of the times. Restraint and caution, let alone lowered expectations, are the order of the day, and if there's any chance for fulfillment, it lies, in the Rodgers-Edwards world view, in the chance for upward mobility and enjoyable leisure time. But it would be a mistake to think of this as mindless stuff--the message is delivered with too much charm and irony. "We want the best. We won't settle for less" sings Chic about a night on the town; at another point they aspire to "reach for a star, or maybe shoot ten under par" but then give it up for dancing. "Have fun again, just like little children," sings Diana Ross, and in the context of a Carter-Reagan Presidential race, who can argue? This is resigned hedonism.
Such are the pleasures of great pop music, where skill and craft mix successfully with the public mood to make a flood of music that sounds like it couldn't exist in any other time or place, where lyrics jumble the trivial with the insightful and make you laugh out loud, where what sounds at first like background music ends up being irresistible, reassuring and disturbing.
Tom Smucker, The Nation
Indeed, the magazine got at least one letter from a subscriber complaining about wasting space on a review of a disco record, when there was so much good rock 'n' roll out there.