Friday, April 22, 2011

Shine A Light, Why Dontcha: Sugarland's Up Tonight

Red, Black, or White? 

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this article is about Sugarland. It isn’t. It is about the relative value of two kinds of videos: the sort that are made in a studio at great cost that are based on a treatment suggesting a storyline, and the kind that simply feature a live performance, recorded in high-def, say, for quality production values. The Inky Jukebox is simply using Sugarland’s latest single, “Tonight” as an example, seeing as their video came out today and provides an excellent point of comparison.

First, the “Official” video:

As you can see, its main visual raison d’être is to show the three incarnations of Jennifer Nettles. (This is a point made amply clear by Sugarland’s facebook poll which asked which dress her fans prefer: red, black or white.) First, we see Red Dress Jennifer sporting her new weave, all glammed up so as to be unrecognizable. Maybe it’s the red lipstick or maybe it’s the reclining on a bench that alienates us. Not sure. In any case, the message seems to be that tonight, this glamorous lady is going on a major date. Not sure what you wear that get-up to (the Oscars?) but hey. Just as soon as you think Sugarland has finally jumped the shark we suddenly get Black Outfit Jennifer (the weave flat-ironed for that edgy look) looking much more like herself — or at least the Jennifer we usually see — on some kind of set actually moving. This goes mercifully further in allowing us to maintain the suspension of disbelief that she is on a film set lip-synching to the track. Then we get White Jennifer, lounging about on a white bed in a white room wearing a white cardigan-thing, with far less make-up on. As far as The Inky Jukebox is concerned, White Jennifer beats Red and Black by a country mile, because she looks natural and not like a wardrobe drone’s idea of a high class prostitute.

Interposed in all of this like layers of frosting are snippets of Kristian Bush playing the guitar somewhere. No-one is paying the remotest bit of attention to these sections, because it’s increasingly becoming ALL ABOUT JENNIFER, but they have to include him, because, well, they are still listed as a duo.

What this bifurcation of the principals does is tell us that Sugarland the band now consists solely of Ms. Nettles, with Mr. Bush taking a far smaller supporting role.  Maybe it’s always really been that way, but a video such as this really brings the point home.

Of course, in concert, this is not the case at all. While Jennifer acts as senior cheerleader at center stage, delivering all the vocal firepower, Kristian has a vital and visually important role by her side; their interaction is well-versed, feels genuine, and appears to be integral to the song. By now, Jennifer Nettles is one of America’s most gifted and professional singers, which has its pros and cons. On the one hand, she can be utterly relied upon to deliver an entertaining and technically perfect performance. On the other, it’s a little TOO perfect, and can come across as rehearsed to the point of theater. The one thing that you can’t fault her on is the incredible range and control of her voice, which Sugarland’s latest songs make a central feature.

The song “Tonight” is the album Incredible Machine’s most obvious example of this. It features those extended notes delivered at full force which nail it to the wall of greatness. Therefore, one would think that any video would play this up. The Red/Black/White version only allows you to think that a machine could have produced such notes, as she’s obviously not singing it in the shot.

Here's an earlier "Official" version of the same song, directed by Kenny Ortega as part of the American Express Unstaged series.

While this does give you a fairly good impression of what Sugarland can do when they play live, it is still not quite right. There's the near-miss opening bars, for a start, and the STAR is not all that she can be. For one thing, there are some nasty red marks on her arm. This is pre-weave Jennifer wearing the sort of outfit she has always favored on stage: tight pants, boots, a sleeveless shirt of some kind — a highly unflattering ensemble. The pants threaten to show more than you care to see and look sweaty; the boots serve to squash her torso; and this particular leather cut-out number is hideous. No wonder they ordered a make-over.

Therefore, The Inky Jukebox suggests that the following recording of Sugarland’s recent ACM’s performance of “Tonight” at Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas is a far more appropriate showcase of her talents (and looks).

Here, there’s no mistaking Jennifer’s skill and showmanship; it is taken straight from their tour set, which also gives you a taste of what a live show from them is like. If a musician can REALLY SING THEIR ASS OFF, then all videos they put out should make this abundantly clear. 

OK, this article is kinda all about Sugarland. And The Inky Jukebox must add that “Shine The Light” is just as awesome a demonstration of Ms. Nettles’ skill from the same album.

Here it is:


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