Friday, October 2, 2009

14. Rufus Wainwright "Oh What a World" (2003)

Rufus Wainwright was on the brink of an Amy Winehouse-style meltdown, even before Poses established him as a critically-acclaimed, but popularly ignored, artist. He was already known for drunken live performances (a bottle of red wine usually rested on top of his grand piano). Stories of Wainwright's debauch antics at New York City gay bars, while possibly apocryphal, are famous among scenesters. Wainwright, himself, has described a particular instance of drug use that left him blind for three days. With the help of Elton John (how's that for a celebrity intervention?), he entered rehab, and there began to write what would become his magnum opus, the double-album Want.

Wainwright has admitted that his slide into alcoholism and drug use was exacerbated by the disappointment of never breaking into the mainstream. Poses, his most accessible record by far, didn't bring the level fame he hoped for. (He's described its most radio-friendly single, "California," as a Bee Gees song minus the popularity.) Perhaps rehab gave him the confidence to follow his instincts. Even Want's catchiest tunes would never be played on mainstream radio (though you can often catch them in Starbucks stores).

On its surface, "Oh What a World," Want's opener, doesn't seem to be an exceptionally personal song. But knowing Rufus' state of mind when he wrote the song illuminates it a bit. It captures his disillusionment with having fame, without being really famous ("Why am I always on a plane or a fast train?"). Wainwright comes from a great musical stock: his father, mother, and aunt are well-known folk singers. "Oh what a world my parents gave me," he sings, almost ambivalent to the amount of success he's achieved.

Rufus Wainwright is a love-him-or-hate-him artist. While his pedigree is folk-pop, his intuition is with classical music and opera. His voice is typically a nonstarter for detractors. His penchant for the baroque and the over-the-top doesn't help him, either. I accept that this is a matter of taste; there is no arguing with that. At the least, you have to applaud Wainwright's audacity. While many artists have looked back to the eighties to cull hooks, for "Oh What a World," Wainwright reached back to the twenties, and covered Maurice Ravel's masterpiece, Boléro.

"Oh What a World" follows Ravel's outline: it builds upon itself, by adding more and more musical voices (including Rufus' own, solo and in the form of a Gregorian choir) that recapitulate the composer's famous theme. Instead of Boléro's snare drum, a tuba provides the ostinato rhythm that provides the song's base. It marches on, a steady crescendo that breaks free in the flourish of its climax.

Wainwright, always the Romantic (in style and in temperament), seeks a world where life is declared "beautiful" on the cover of the New York Times. This obsession with the beautiful is, in my opinion, Wainwright's greatest virtue as an artist. His detractors may disagree. But this, at least, is not a matter of taste. It's a matter of worldview.

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[Note: The accompanying video is a 2004 performance of the song, which I had the great privilege of seeing live at the Filmore West in San Francisco. There is no official video of the song to embed on this blog. All of my musings refer to the album version of the song.]