The death of Laura Branigan last week slipped in under many radars. Most news services and Web sites had links to or rehashes of the same Reuters/All Music Guide piece, clinically direct as "'Gloria' singer dead at 47." Unlike Madonna, unlike Cyndi Lauper, unlike Whitney Houston, she was never an icon of the 1980s, though her music from that period remains just as relevant as that of those artists. She was a singer (and occasional artist) who for a brief period of time embodied the gloriously schizo nature of what pop music can encompass, spanning aerobics anthems (calling "Gloria"), searing ballads ("Ti Amo," "Forever Young," "The Power of Love"), dance floor apocalypses ("Heart," "Satisfaction"), and girly-twirl disco ("Shattered Glass," "Solitaire").
A genre-bender of the highest order, Branigan could tackle any song that came her way, accomplishing it with class and a sense of history. Had she been born two decades earlier, she could have been a Brill Building superstar: indeed, her version of Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" is graceful and haunting. But the '80s gave her room to spread her wings and raise her voice.
Branigan seemed out of place in contemporary popular music, built on the foundation of (or reaction against) explicitness. Her career was never tied to any specific image or incarnation. Instead, she focused on the songs. It's hard to imaginegiven the destructive influence of Mariah Carey and other balladivas, who have dispatched melody altogether for ostentatiously arpeggiated melismathat there was a time when pop ballads could simply be sung.
The proof is in "How Am I Supposed To Live Without You," a huge hit from 1983's Branigan 2 album. The first big break for its writer, Michael Boltonhey, even Dylan has written with Bolton, so don't hold it against the late Ms. B.Branigan's version is passionate and nuanced. She knows the value of dynamics over vocal pyrotechnics, an understanding completely absent from Bolton's own version. The same contrast appears between Cher's "I Found Someone" (also written by Bolton) and Branigan's own version, recorded two years prior.
You will find, looking back over her body of work, an eye and ear for successful collaboration. Not just Bolton and future queen of MOR ballads Diane Warren, but a host of unusual suspects: Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force producer/mixer/collaborator John Robie, on the delirious 12" version of "The Lucky One"; Britpop/Hi-NRG architects Stock Aitken Waterman, for "Shattered Glass" and "Whatever I Do" from 1987's Touch album. Impeccable cover choices proliferate in the grooves of her records, from Alphaville's "Forever Young" (on 1985's now out-of-print Hold Me album) to her Latin-disco freakout on "Turn The Beat Around" and her distinctive take on The Who's "Squeeze Box."
The ingenious aspect of her biggest '80s successes involved taking international hits, then commissioning new English lyrics for them. Thus Italy's hits became "Gloria" and "Self Control," France gave us "Solitaire," and "Satisfaction" and "Deep in the Dark" originated as German-language smashes. Because of the global pop marketplace, Laura's versions of these songs often became hits in their land of origin again, as much because of her respectful and passionate performance as for the tight production by Jack White (no, not that one, the German one). Of those previously mentioned, "Deep in the Dark" is the oddestespecially since the original, "Der Kommisar," was an English-language hit for After the Fire as well as a German smash for the also late, also great Falco.
The must-have among her work is the Self Control album. In marked opposition to most pop albums of that time, it has a pronounced absence of filler, and the romantic synth-pop of the first two albums gets injected with a little Teutonic ice thanks to programmer/engineer/arranger Harold Faltermeyer, whose work with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte on Donna Summer's '70s epics remains the zenith of orchestrated synthwork. But as today's electroclash and '80s revival markets maintain, it's about the controversy, not the music.
So it's fortunate that the video for the "Self Control" single (directed by Exorcist/Jade/Cruising auteur William Friedkin!) was considered so shockingly steamy that MTV required some edits before it could air. What fascinates to this day, upon viewing the video, is how demure it seems compared to most of today's videos. That, and how rare it is to see a video on any of the major music channels that addresses a woman's sexual thoughts. That's a key to how Branigan fit into the world of music at that time. Her image was never girlish or adolescent, though she was conventionally attractive. She was simply marketed as a woman with complex emotions. That seems unfathomable in today's marketplace.
There are two hits compilations in print currently, both of which feature most of the big hits ("Gloria," "Self Control," "Spanish Eddie," "The Lucky One," "Solitaire," "Ti Amo"). The Essentials: Laura Branigan gets a minor edge in comparison, mainly because it includes "I Found Someone," "Shattered Glass," and "Moonlight on Water (Sex on the Beach)." But The Best of Branigan includes the wrenching "Over You" as well as two covers not available anywhere else: Maria McKee's "Show Me Heaven" and Donna Summer's "Dim All the Lights," both of which are worth experiencing. Sadly, her version of "Forever Young" remains unavailable.
What resounds for me in Laura Branigan's records is the ghost-in-the-machine potential of '80s music, which is uptempo and gloriously mechanized, but with unease and uncertainty as the human element. Her voice rings out through formations of guitars or strings or banks of electronics, and no one-line synopsis on a news crawl or dreadful remix cash-in on her past glories will change that. Some artists you expect to die young; others, you imagine, will always be around, making music and performing because it's what they do. I wasn't ready for the '80s to start dying so soon.