Tuesday, September 22, 2009

YOU WILL DANCE NOW: Taylor Dayne and the Art of the Imperative

On her first album, Tell It To My Heart, Taylor Dayne was blunt and demanding. She titled three of her four top 10 hits imperative sentences. The popularity of "Prove Your Love":

"Don't Rush Me":

and the title song:

--may demonstrate that, in the year of wimpy Bush vs. soft Dukakis, there was a hunger for direct imperative stuff--especially since 1988 also saw Chicago's "Look Away," Steve Winwood's "Roll With It," and Billy Ocean's lascivious "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car." Either that, or the Imperative was simply Taylor's strongest mode.

As Imperative Hits go, hers are unequivocal. Really, the list of artists who've hit so early in their careers with three Imperatives is shorter than Gillette's ex-boyfriend. Consider Taylor Dayne's Imperative Peers:

The Beatles demand, unequivocally, that we (or "baby") "Twist and Shout," but only after they've politely requested "Love Me, Do," and "Please Please Me." Such nice boys!

Sad-eyed Bobby Vee begs "Take Good Care of My Baby," "Run To Him," and most pathetically, "Please Don't Ask About Barbara," who's no doubt being "taken care of" by someone else. Even the promising "Punish Her," which initially conjures images of Barbara being subjected to some creepy S&M scenarios in the Vee dungeon, cops out by encouraging only that we "kill her with kindness" and "punish her with so much affection that she will cry for the love she threw away." I'd surmise that even a small amount of Vee's affection would resemble punishment.

Dionne Warwick resides a little closer to Taylor's territory. "Don't Make Me Over" is a "Tell It To My Heart" for the early '60s, sung by a woman confidently arguing with the lover who'd change her identity. Sure it's wispy and she's at his command, but she likes who she is. "Walk On By" is heartbroken but resolute. "Reach Out For Me," though, regresses to nursemaidery.

So it's our melancholy Dayne who pulls off the unprecedented feat of three Imperative Hits, early in her career, that do not mince words. Which isn't to say that they're consistent with one another, because "Don't Rush Me" works a wary counterpoint with the other two. Imagine a courtroom trial, albeit one that completely disregards normal legal procedure. Taylor opens her case--True Love vs. Wary Cad--with "Tell It To My Heart," only to have her lover counter-argue "Don't Rush Me" two songs later. But two songs after that, Taylor rebuts with "Prove Your Love," with which she presumably wins the argument, because all of a sudden we're off to side 2 for some top-notch filler.

Taylor Dayne had little to do with the Latin freestyle scene, but freestyle's sonic fingerprints are all over these three songs. The three Imperatives, especially "Tell" and "Prove," boast jagged synths that swirl around the melodies, bright synths that outline the melodic contours, and tinkly synths that highlight the melodic highlights. The beats drive and the keys are minor. None of this would sound out of place on an album by Expose or Pajama Party, and though Taylor doesn't touch Hispanic rhythmic elements in any of her songs, there are plenty of complex polyrhythms. If further evidence is needed, she still gets love on freestyle message boards.

This album was the first high-profile production job for Ric Wake, who also didn't have anything to do with freestyle but knew that its sound would sell Taylor's commanding persona. Taylor and Ric would jettison many of the freestyle elements on Taylor's big-league Diane-Warren-laced followup album, Can't Fight Fate. Indeed, '87 to '90 were freestyle's peak in the mainstream spotlight before it descended again to its vibrant underground, with the guys from Linear in hot pursuit. Ric would go on to immense mainstream success with Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez, and the Chicago soundtrack, not to mention Kathy Troccoli (whose "Everything Changes" sounds a lot like Taylor). None of them have anything to do with freestyle.

Neither does most Tell It To My Heart's side 2, on which Taylor's powerful voice tackles a cover of Honey Cone's "Want Ads," the girl-groupy "Where Does That Boy Hang Out," and something approaching a Celtic folk ballad, "Upon the Journey's End." There's also an ethereal Kate Bush-sounding thing called "Carry Your Heart," which is lyrically your typical "I'll be there for you" song, but musically pretty spacey for a dance album. This isn't the stuff you pay to hear, but as far as filler goes, it's fun and varied. And it all beats the non-Imperative ballad off side 1, "I'll Always Love You":

--which was somehow the second biggest hit from the album.

Taylor Dayne's voice is, of course, a volcanic force, reminiscent of Tina Turner's, with a hard edge and some weirdly-shaped vowels that she enjoys exploiting. Wise move, then, to pair it with some searing freestyle songs. Tell It To My Heart is the album that introduces Taylor as a singer who knows exactly what she wants, at least during the span of a song, and will settle for nothing less. As we'll see if I'm not lazy, her followup album is both more resigned and more powerful, as she settles into the role of divine diva-goddess and marshals her power accordingly.

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