Friday, July 9, 2010
Nina Hagen: Naturträne
Nina Hagen: She of the monster voice, rubber face, and a beauty all her own. You have to wonder if that voice could exist without the mad poached-egg eyes and the mouth conceivably capable of holding a jet engine. But then, everything about her is outsized. (And very German too, and I mean that in the best possible way). As a singer her currency is the radical mix: the grand gesture with the Grand Guignol, the classical with the animal, the sacred with the profane, and all filtered through the technical burlesque of that voice. As a personality she is equally garish, flamboyant, and loud, and yet there's an undeniable delicacy in her too. She manages to radiate humanity and vulnerability no matter what voice she's using or what disguise she's in. (Compare this to Diamanda [below] whose talent seems to serve an entirely different master. Nina is a mom; Diamanda is, god forbid, not. Maybe the answer is in there, somewhere.) As Naturträne demonstrates, Nina has no wanting for technique, but she isn't limited by it either: She could use it or not, depending on how it might best serve her particular vision. That she doesn't need to put it on display in everything she does is a rare quality indeed.
And despite all that, for me anyway, Hagen's career never quite found the right vehicles for her talent. (Imagine her voice as animated character! She's practically one already.) Maybe it was as simple as never having found the right support in a producer, arranger, or musicians. Her records seem far too conventional for her vision and more than a little naive. (Admittedly, Americans like me tend to find foreign [save for the British] rock and roll naive in general.) Her sleepwalking covers of 60s American bubblegum hits are an example. Imagine her voice with a band of suitable peers capable of making her prodigiousness soar: Sonic Youth, Tom Waits, Brian Eno, (early) Roxy Music, John Zorn, Philip Glass, Elliott Sharp, Polysics... John Paul Jones, even. (Insert your preference here.)
Explore YouTube and you'll find her more recent work includes standard big band arrangements of jazz-age evergreens. While her versions are respectable, if unexceptional, the arrangements seem to corset her. (Check the audience: The mystified looks on their faces are a giveaway that she may be fluttering way above their heads.) She just might be the best interpreter of Brecht/Weill ever if she weren't playing so nice for the posh theater crowd. (If only she could give her Brecht more Vile, as the old joke goes...) Note her video versions of "Surbaya Johnny" and "Alabama Song," you keep hoping for Mad Nina to appear but, alas, she never does. ("Alabama Song" could be Nina after electroshock treatment. Or too heavy a dose of Prozac.)
Despite this, watch the video above and see if you too don't fall in love with her. Whatever her output, her gifts and charms are undeniable. Maybe it's the combination of the emotional intimacy with a fair dose of sexual abandon, the domineering and the demure, and that bucketful of vulnerability. It's a generous performance.