All Souls Towards Truth
PHOTO CREDIT: Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times
The Importance of k.d. lang’s Groundbreaking Constant Craving
I want to talk about…
the magnificent k.d. lang and the fact she is in the U.K. performing at the moment and, considering her wonderful album Ingénue is twenty-seven, it gives me a chance to discuss that. Whilst that album brought L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ themes more into the open and saw lang come out – it was not often done in the 1990s –, it also boasted some truly terrific music to boot! Its best-known track is the powerful-yet-tremulous Constant Craving. This is a song I actually discovered, oddly, when Now That's What I Call Music! 24 came out in 1993. That compilations boasts some epically wonderful music and, alongside all the beautiful gems is k.d. lang’s masterpiece. Being nine when the compilation arrived, I was not aware of the significance of the track. I could appreciate the longing and the sheer desire burning hot but, as a youngster, I was not actually aware of L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ issues and communities – I am not even sure I ever heard the term used (although it would most likely have been ‘L.G.B.T.’ then) – so my love of k.d. lang was based purely on musical merit at the time. I listen to Constant Craving now and it sounds utterly spellbinding and insistent! A chart hit around the world, there are scandalously few featured and articles dedicated to this wonderful song – the same goes for the Ingénue album! Even the Wikipedia entry for the song is pretty brief but, as it won a Grammy in 1993 (Best Female Pop Vocal Performance) and an MTV Music Video Award for Best Female Video, it warrants some serious respect.
I have seen recent interviews lang has conducted recently – to promote her new tour – and she is asked about Constant Craving and its relevance. The idea of a gay female musician coming out or expressing their desire through song in the 1990s was a huge moment. Many might not have realised it at the time because, whilst lang wanted to keep her private life quiet, when she did come out, Constant Craving revealed new truths and layers. Think about music now and the fact there are relatively few gay artists confidently expressing their sexuality. That is not their fault; more a problem we have in music where there is a bit of stigma and the heteronormative ideal of modern mainstream music rigidly exists. There are some wonderful L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ artists striving right now (including Shura) but they are in a minority. I know for a fact there are many more L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ artists in the underground and, with the mainstream set up like it is, how many songs like Constant Craving will we see I do think k.d. lang’s jewel of a song opened doors and conversations; it is cited by artists today as being a pivotal moment and, thinking about it more and more, it was a hugely brave song to release. I adore the video and the fact it bases itself on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In the video, lang waits backstage as actors perform on the stage. Short in black-and-white, the gamut of emotions lang goes through is impressive. At once she is inflamed and hungry and that turns to anxiety; she smiles and laughs and, in another shot, runs her hair through her hands.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
One can see the video as, perhaps, lang revealing herself to the world or trying to blend in; maybe she is playing a part of this is her moment to shine. It is a gorgeous video and one that perfectly complements the song. The final track on Ingénue, Constant Craving is a complete reinvention for lang. Prior to the album coming out, her style was more Country-based and, taking huge leaps, Ingénue surprised some. It is a magnificent work and one, as AllMusic highlight, that signalled a change of style/pace for k.d. lang:
“Ingénue presented lang as an adult contemporary artist for the first time, and if she felt any trepidation at all about her stylistic shift, you'd never guess after listening to the record; lang's vocal style is noticeably more subtle on Ingénue than her previous albums, but her command of her instrument is still complete, and the cooler surroundings allowed her to emotionally accomplish more with less. lang's songwriting moved into a more impressionistic direction with Ingénue, and while the literal meanings of many of her tunes became less clear, she also brought a more personal stamp to her music, and the emotional core of "Save Me," "Constant Craving," and "So It Shall Be" was obvious even when their surfaces were evasive. And the production and arrangements by lang and her longtime collaborators Ben Mink and Greg Penny were at once simple and ambitious, creating a musical space that was different in form and effect than her previous albums but one where she sounded right at home. Ingénue disappoints slightly because while lang was a masterful and thoroughly enjoyable country singer, she was a far more introspective adult contemporary singer/songwriter who seemingly demanded the audience accept her "as is" or not at all. However, the craft of the album is impressive indeed, and few artists have reinvented themselves with as much poise and panache as lang did on Ingénue”.
IN THIS PHOTO: k.d. lang in 1992/PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Natkin/Getty Images
To me, when I first heard the song, there was no historical significance and I was not aware of the importance. I look at it now and am amazed. Maybe there were a few gay men I was a\ware of in the 1992 mainstream but not that many at all. One cannot overemphasise the importance of Constant Craving and how much it meant to lang. In this feature in The Guardian from 2017, she spoke about its creation:
“We’d hired a little place in Vancouver to write songs. I’d been listening to Black Crow by Joni Mitchell and said to Ben, my songwriting partner: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do a song with similar, flowing open chords?” I sat down with a little Casio keyboard and the music came quickly, but I struggled to write lyrics for months. Then one day I just sat at the window with a typewriter and the phrase “constant craving” came into my head. Once I had that, the lyrics flowed.
“Constant craving” relates to samsara, the Buddhist cycle of birth and death, but I wasn’t a practising Buddhist then so I honestly don’t know what the impetus for the song was. I just wrote it from the perspective of desire and longing.
The song is part of who I am. At the time there weren’t really any other pop stars who had properly come out, especially female. I was on the cusp of being really famous, so there was a lot to lose. The previous year, there was a huge backlash when I did a “Meat Stinks” campaign for Peta, but by the time I came out I think people had exhausted all their anger and hate for me. When we were nominated for the Grammys, there were religious groups outside picketing, but it wasn’t too bad”.
IN THIS PHOTO: k.d. lang captured in 1992/PHOTO CREDIT: Jill Furmanovsky
I know that, as lang is touring and playing Ingénue to multiple generations, it will raise debate around sexuality in music and how far we have come. Certainly, lang is a trailblazer and someone who continues to inspire. This article discusses how bold and different Ingénue was in the context of music back in 1992:
“When “Ingénue” was released in 1992, with its dirge-like anthems to love and longing, the idea that a thrillingly sexual, openly gay and very butch woman would become a pop idol was seismic. It’s hard to imagine now, when hit television shows like “Transparent” treat lesbian sex as the least complicated of its themes and when the average seventh grader has been schooled in the semiotics of drag and to see gender as a spectrum.
Gay men were familiar. Gay women, not really. And certainly not gay women as magnificently sensual as Ms. Lang. In that same decade, Ellen DeGeneres would become famous, partly by being all-American affable, never an erotic threat. Even singing her fierce “Come to My Window,” Melissa Etheridge hewed closely to the image of a traditional country singer. But K. D. Lang in a man-tailored suit was something else altogether”.
Every time I hear Constant Craving, although I am not gay and do not connect with the track in the same way as many others, it sends shivers down the spine and reveals something deep in me. The fact that its video is so striking and artful adds new dynamics and nuances; an impassioned longing explodes and aches, all scored by lang’s incredible voice.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
I don’t think k.d. lang gets enough credit as a singer. In terms of her emotional range, she can go from joyed and rapturous to this sensitive and soul-baring artist. The immense power and beauty one can hear in a song like Constant Craving is one of the reasons it has remained so popular and continues to find new fans and those keen to unpack it and investigate its myriad sides. You can still catch lang on tour in the U.K. - but I am sure she will be back. I know this tour is so especial because she is playing Ingénue and many fans new and old get to hear songs like Constant Craving in all its glory. Given the fact there has been protest at schools in connection with L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ teaching and homophobic attacks happening around the country, it seems like Ingénue is more relevant than ever. Although we have made strides over the past few decades, I do feel like there is this ignorance and hatred that, I feel, could be tempered and reduced if music opened up more. I mentioned how there are so many L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ artists in the underground and, in terms of the Pop charts, are we still to limiting, heteronormative and commercial? I think so. Artists like k.d. lang have helped open up the discussion and a song such as Constant Craving cannot help but influence and affect today.
In this interview from earlier in the month, lang was asked about her role as an influence:
“Does she recognise that she opened the door for others to walk through? “Um, yeah, although I try not to take huge credit for that because it’s not a competition. It’s something bigger than all of us. I am certainly proud, but at the same time, I’m just one of many. Gay culture isn’t just one sliver of humanity – it’s a huge cross-section of people.”
Pop is one of the few cultural movements where the young are ascribed more power than the old. Often, it can feel like young pop stars are given credit for things lang was doing well before they were born: playing with gender and image, blurring the lines between what it is to be masculine or feminine. There is obviously still a power in the subversion, but do they have to fight in the way that she did? A pause. “Women are still fighting, and people of colour are still fighting, and gay people are still fighting”.
It seems like the middle-aged lang is pretty content and happy; although there is this sense that, after so many years, she has doubts and fears regarding people’s perceptions. I urge people to read the interview she gave with The New York Times last year because it is very illuminating, personal and stirring. I have selected this extract because, to me, it stood out most strongly:
“I’ll never be a Billie Holiday. I’ll never be an Ella Fitzgerald. I’ll never be a Joni Mitchell. So it’s this kind of relinquishing, this kind of acquiescence. I guess I’m really giving in to the fact that I am who I am. I’m too young to be a legend, and too old to be pertinent.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Seeing her interrogator raise an eyebrow, Ms. Lang cracked up. “I’m more focused on trying to stay open to people and stop myself from rushing to judgment even if they’re being irrational,” she said. “I fail constantly and it’s really sad to me. It’s more plain than mindfulness. It’s just like, ‘Be nice to people,’ and God, that’s hard to do.”
It is wonderful seeing lang perform and still on the stage; putting these big hits to the world and, as live reviews from her recent shows have indicated, hearing the warmth and banter she projects. A truly captivating performer and definite role model, I come back to Constant Craving and the first time I heard it; nestling on that 1993 compilation alongside hits from Paul McCartney (Hope of Deliverance), Snow (Informer) and Annie Lennox (Love Song for a Vampire). It was an amazing moment for a then-nine-year-old but, at thirty-six, it holds new meaning and wonder. Whether you can appreciate the significance of the song and the Ingénue album or are a little detached, one cannot help but acknowledge the importance of Constant Craving and a time in music when there were very few gay women in the forefront. I do hope lang comes back to the U.K, next year or some time because there are many who will not be able to see her this time around – the demand is always there for the Canadian legend and her wonderful back catalogue. As her final U.K. dates approach, I return to this masterpiece of a song that is being discovered by new audiences and, in 2019, still seems so bold and inspiring – let’s hope that renewed interest helps bring about greater equality, understanding and less hatred towards the L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ community. The inspiring opening words of Constant Craving still resonate: “Even through the darkest phase/Be it thick or thin/Always someone marches brave…
PHOTO CREDIT: Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times
HERE beneath my skin”.