Soundness of her style

September 03, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

What image becomes a singer most?

How much should style shape the way music is presented in a video? Should sex appeal and glamour be allowed to overshadow musicianship? And which is more important -- the band's performance or the song's story line?

Those are a few of the questions that spring to mind while watching "Life Promise Pride Love" (Epic Music Video), the new compilation video from Sade. Because even though they weren't intended as such, the 14 clips collected offer a revealing glimpse into how Sade Adu managed to evolve from chic puppet to credible musician over the course of her four albums.

"Your Love Is King" typifies the image problems Sade endured early on. It's essentially a "singing mannequin" clip, with the singer, stock still, prettily mouthing the words as the camera revolves around her. Message: Gosh, she's pretty. Not exactly an endorsement of her musicianship, is it?

"Smooth Operator" and "Hang On to Your Love" more or less continue in that vein. Although the former is quite a lavish production, with Sade playing a singer caught in a web of intrigue spun by her unscrupulous manager, the video tends to diminish her musically because she ends up "playing" a singer, not acting like one. (The shoot-'em-up ending is particularly ludicrous). For "Hang On," Sade not only reprises the role of lounge singer, but she and the band are demoted to the level of scenery.

"Never As Good as the First Time" takes an artier route, but with similar results, since every time Sade is shown she's on a galloping horse. It makes a great case for her as a horsewoman but offers no evidence of musicality whatsoever.

Basically, what each of those videos is hawking is style, as if someone in marketing had decided that the best way to sell Sade was not as a band but as some sort of fashion accessory. And while the singer's runway-model looks made it a credible pitch, all that high-society posturing left the music looking shallow and affected.

Contrast that with "Sweetest Taboo" and "Is It a Crime," videos that couch their it's-a-glamorous-life story lines in terms of Sade's life as a singer. "Taboo," for instance, finds her recalling a troubled romance while working out the song with her band, a tack that emphasizes the emotional content of her performance while still leaving room enough for her to look fabulously romantic.

"Is It a Crime" continues that theme, with Sade in the same rehearsal hall, wearing the same tight jeans, but with a different set of memories. This time, the broken romance is brought to its resolution (it's she who leaves him), with an inference that, in the end, the band came first. Taken together, the two clips do a marvelous job of emphasizing Sade's musical credibility without undercutting the glam-image her early videos cultivated.

Sade refines that image through "Nothing Can Come Between Us" and "Turn My Back," though in markedly different ways. "Nothing" is a performance clip shot in over-exposed black-and-white to look like a kinescope of an old Motown TV performance. "Turn My Back," on the other hand, is set in Las Vegas, with enough jumpy cross-cutting to recall U2's video for "Desire." But the gimmick here is that everyone in the band, including Sade, is dressed in tuxes -- a subtle way of suggesting she's just "one of the boys" that somehow also emphasizes her sex appeal.

Ironically, the fact that she had finally been established as a musician in her videos makes the staginess of Sade's subsequent clips a lot easier to swallow. True, the mermaid gimmick in "No Ordinary Love" would have seemed goofy under any circumstances (though the scenes in which she makes out with her sailor boy are steamier than any underwater sequences you'll see on MTV), but there's nothing ludicrous about the way she poses with a guitar in "Cherish the Day" -- even when the camera treats her less like a musician than a fashion model.

Maybe that's why "Feel No Pain" conveys such emotional power. Because even though the imagery draws vivid parallels between the parched desert locale and the dried-up economic prospects described in the lyrics, what ultimately gives the clip its punch is Sade herself, who puts so much heart into her singing that there's no way anyone could mistake her for a mannequin.

Sade

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday; opening act: Digable Planets

Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion, Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia

4 Tickets: $27.50 for pavilion seats, $20 for lawn

Call: (410) 730-2424

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