Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Straight Outta Oz - Visual Album Feminist Review



After being obsessed with this album for the last month, I knew that I had to do a review. What a year for visual albums! (Ahem. Lemonade.) And whereas Beyonce blessed us with a narrative on the experience of the Black Woman, Straight Outta Oz is Todrick Hall’s personal portrayal of his experience as a Black Gay Man in Hollywood. And it is divine! The story takes us on a ride following Todrick, our modern day Dorothy, as he navigates his identities, dreams, and career in a complex world.





The opening number, “No Place Like Home” introduces us to our main character and his main point in telling his story. Todrick sings, “And if you’re lost out there in the night, wishing on stars, wondering who you are. Just know you’re never alone and there’s no place like home.” The song is eerie, tense, and pulsing. It absolutely does the job to capture the audience, and sets the tone for the rest of the story. This is one my favorites on the entire album musically, lyrically, thematically, etc.


Then we are introduced to a young Todrick in “Proud of Me.” This song takes us to church, and Todrick tells us about his earliest musical experiences in the church. It erupts into a thunderous and catchy chorus, and if the harmonies of the gospel choir don’t give you chills, you’ve got no soul. There are two lead vocalists, young Todrick and present Todrick, and although both are incredibly talented, Todrick Hall as his present self gives an incredibly passionate delivery of the second chorus.


In “Over The Rainbow” Todrick shows us an intimate moment with his father from his childhood and it flows into a ballad about growing up his father’s gendered expectations and how his father told him about a place “over the rainbow” which I interpreted as heaven. “I know the world may dance with devils, but be strong you belong to this holy land.” This line particularly opens up a very sensitive topic, especially to me as a queer identifying person who was raised Christian, because this line calls on the narrative taught in the church that we must abstain from the temptations of the world. This is usually parallel with the idea that homosexuality is a choice and a sin that must be chosen against. For queer youth in church, this can be an extremely hard aspect of growing up, and Todrick captures the sensitivity perfectly. The song closes with a clip of actual young Todrick singing “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” And if you haven’t caught chills or had tears by the end of this one, you must be heartless.


Todrick tells us his first experience with real love in “Color.” The beautiful duet is romantic and light. There is something so pure and beautiful about this portrayal of love, which is completely necessary in this world. Let’s not pretend this exists in a vacuum, to see an absolutely gorgeous and healthy portrayal of gay love is still so refreshing and as I said before necessary. We still need to normalize queer relationships in this largely heterosexual world, and Todrick does this flawlessly. “I’d like to be the kind of man you’d like to love. We’ve got a right to love. And baby i’d like to love you, cause you’re my favorite hue.” PLUS, he looks so happy throughout this entire scene, it’s the best thing. There is something a bit problematic though, and I’m going to keep this review 100% honest, the scene ends with Garett, Todrick’s partner singing, “And whenever you’re there, darling I swear, I don’t see color.” Considering the rest of the song “color” is a reference to happiness, and Todrick’s partner is white, I can’t help but think that in this last line it refers to Todrick’s skin. As in the partner is saying he is colorblind, which on the surface can seem great, but feminist and social justice theory will argue that claiming color-blindness is actually detrimental and not helpful at all because it denies the complexities of Todrick’s identity. To that end, still a wonderful, magical scene.


Todrick symbolizes the twister in a short unnamed song that tells us about how his mother moved their family away and Todrick now had a step-father and brother. The quick and intense song transitions us into, “Little People,” which, yes you guessed it, Todrick’s new version of the munchkin song. His friends are not munchkins, but as they call themselves the little people, it’s used in the “don’t forget about us when you’re a big star” way. It’s an endearing exchange between his hometown friends that support his dream and Todrick who promises he won’t forget them. “Impossible for me to love you harder, and I’ll never forget my alma mater,” he promises them. There is even a moment where Pentatonix is featured singing the chorus, a very cute cameo. And in his defining dorothy moment, Todrick receives his ruby slippers, ahem, timbs in “Expensive.” We are taken into a scene of shopping and glamour, where our main character is surrounded by drag queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the only thing that would’ve made this scene better was a direct reference to the glam Glinda the Good Witch herself. The drag queens probably symbolize Glinda, but I don’t see a pink dress in sight. To that end, this number is one of the jams on the record; it oozes confidence and is pure fun. We end this scene on a moment of clarity from the world of capitalist dreams, “But the one’s that look expensive could be broke on the inside.”


And at this point in the album, we reach the point where Todrick shares with us his interpretation of some of our most beloved characters: Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion. In that same succession, we have three songs, “Dumb,” “If I Had A Heart,” and “Lyin’ To Myself” dedicated to these characters. And I think they all embody the three sides of Todrick that he explores throughout his journey, his political mind, his healing heart, and his creative confidence. In “Dumb,” we are given a personal deconstruction on the superficial state of the entertainment industry in the form of a pop song. From my feminist stance, I appreciate this one the most as it offers systematic critique. “If I Had A Heart,” appropriately gives us a heartfelt, ballad-like devotional to a love interest. This is probably the most relatable of all three, anyone can sympathize with Todrick’s heartache. And in my musically favorite of this set, “Lyin’ To Myself” is a bouncy tune that exemplifies how tempting it is to get wrapped up in the glitz and glamour, and building an identity of self that is based in material things. This song has amazing vocals and a great vibe, and Todrick looks FIERCE in this video (I know, that adjective is cliche considering the lion aspect, but there is absolutely no better adjective to capture Todrick’s essence in this imagery.)

We transition into a character not descendant from the original Oz tale, but one that makes a true impact in the development of this story: Todrick’s mother. Played by Amber Riley, she has two songs on the album, the first is “Lions and Tigers and Bears.” This is a sweet song of how deep a mother’s love runs, here she tells us, that she would go to any length to fight for her son. Riley delivers her touching promise in the most endearing way, with charisma and personality, making Todrick’s mother one of the most fleshed out characters on the album. If you’re listening to the album on Youtube, you will hear a voicemail recording left by his actual mother that will leave you with chills, as she sends a heartfelt hello to her son. The intimacy of including this recording enriches the depths of this album.

And we reach my personal favorite on this album. Ironically, my favorite song on this album is one of the most problematic. 

“Papi” features Nicole Scherzinger as some kind of administrative assistant in the entertainment industry. This is the moment when Todrick finally reaches Oz Angeles, and he finds himself inside the office of a key player in the industry dealing with a woman who in exchange for physical satisfaction (what she refers to as “a taste of chocolate/caramel”) will tell her boss about Todrick and his talent. So here’s where the problematic-ness comes in: with the sexualization of both characters, there are reductive stereotypes at play. Todrick is explicitly sexualized when she refers to him as “a little taste of chocolate.” With Scherzinger’s character, she can be interpreted as a Latina character because of her language (her most memorable lyric says, “Make me say ‘ay papi, ay papi ay.’”) This instantly gives me, “sexy, fiery Latina” archetype vibes, but this was my favorite song so I had to do some further analysis. This song reflects the poppy field scene from the original Oz tale, and so “papi” is a play on “poppy.” I can understand how Todrick took this lyrical idea and ran with it, but it’s still disappointing to see this flat, nameless portrayal of a Latina, played by a non-Latina. As someone who has a developed a passion for critical analysis, I instantly had red flags especially because I loved this song so much and I knew there was some problematic representation. I do adore this song; it is seductive and catchy, I had it on repeat for days. Of course, it would be a complete disservice to ignore the true meaning behind this tune. Todrick is sharing his experience with someone who was sexually aggressive and manipulative, which is still rare for men, cishetero or LGBTQIA+ identifying, to share particularly when the perpetrator is a woman. I applaud Todrick for this, this transparency that is truly wonderful for the audience, for someone who may have had a similar experience and remained silent about the abuse for fear of backlash.

The story of Todrick’s time in Oz Angeles is further developed in “Green.” In this scene, we are set at the Ozcars. Just like the original Emerald City, everything in this scene is green (hence the title.) This is commentary on the empty glamour and superficial habits of those inhabitants of the entertainment industry. This is a quick number and the message here is clear, “They want that green money. But the, the green lies. And the grass ain’t greener on the other side. To get that green money would you walk that green mile? Then pose for the camera while you wave and you smile…”


Todrick’s Mother returns in her second ballad, “See Your Face.” As Todrick is off making his dreams come true in Oz Angeles, his mother misses her son and anticipates his return back home. The song, like her other one, is emotionally charged and beautifully delivered by Amber Riley marvelously fleshes out Todrick’s mother. And now that we’ve introduced both of her songs, let’s talk about how wonderfully feminist this representation of motherhood is! Todrick’s mother isn’t perfect, but she unconditionally loves her son. Her emotions are so raw, loaded, and palpable that it demands to attention from the viewer. Todrick captured this essence wonderfully.


From here we transition into two songs, who although are vastly different in their tone and delivery, work hand in hand to make Todrick’s most powerful and politically charged statement of the album. Through “Wrong Bitch” and “Water Guns” Todrick reveals his stance: advocacy for gun control and Black Live Matter. These two songs tell the story of how Todrick goes to find the Wicked Witch, and he ends up witnessing her murder (via a police officer’s watergun.) In this version, the green people are a marginalized group and the Wicked Witch is their political leader, who organizes a revolt against the Wizard. “Wrong Bitch” is the Wicked Witch’s statement song, and the Witch is played by Bob The Drag Queen. She is calling out the Wizard and holding him and those in power accountable for their actions, including the murder of her sister. 


After the murder has happened with a water gun, we come to the song, “Water Guns.” This absolutely chilling song is perhaps the most necessary at this point in time, and truly makes this album remarkable. “These ain’t water guns, And please save all our sons and daughters, What we fighting for? Cause these ain’t water guns. Water guns, no more.” Through this simple chorus, that features the extremely talented Jordin Sparks, Hall makes a profound critique on gun violence, and I would even say he advocates for gun policy reform. The message is delivered to fit the situation of the plot, but it reflects real-life issues. This absolutely chilling videography and song takes this album, a personal narrative, to a new level. Without a doubt, the personal is political throughout this entire track listing, but in this song explicitly ties together the personal and the political to bring his larger message to the forefront.


And finally, Todrick clicks his heels three times in a beautiful end that reveals his journey home will be his next move. “Home” is a praise of the place where he so desperately wanted to leave in exchange for the glitz and glamour of Oz Angeles, Texas. “I’m running back to the arms of the ones that love me.” The song is a joyful completion to the story, a happy ending where Todrick realizes that superficial motives will no longer suffice.

I must say that there are without a doubt mistakes and gaps in this critique, but I have been writing this for a bit and definitely wanted to share this commentary on such an inspiring piece of work. Allow me to be forthright and say that there must have been things I missed and am happy to hear any other critiques or points that could improve this! 
Wonderfully created with all of Todrick’s heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears, Straight Outta Oz is a perfectly delivered masterpiece. Truly one of my favorite albums of the year. 

Muscially yours,Priscysinger1


originally posted on 01 aug 16 at 10am 

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