This was the last thing I’d expected. Ronstadt, to my mind, was close to the ultimate platinum lightweight; since nothing about her produced in me the helpless palpitations apparently common to members of my sex, I had to fall back on her music, and I found it thin (just about all of Simple Dreams), strained (“Love Has No Pride,” “Down So Low”), automatic (this, that, or the other oldies cover) and, at its worst, philistine in its “interpretive” aggrandizement (“Rivers of Babylon,” “Many Rivers to Cross”). She had her moments: there was “Willin’,” the gentle guttiness of “The Tattler,” and “You’re No Good,” which cut Betty Everett’s original all to pieces. They seemed like the inevitable but anomalous breakthroughs of a very determined and well-produced professional—a confused singer heading for the no-less-inevitable crunch when it became obvious her success was out of proportion to her talent and people just got tired of her.
Since I came away from her show a convert, I no longer looked forward to such a fate for Ronstadt; instead, I looked forward to her next LP, and couldn’t wait for “Back in the U.S.A.” Well, we’ve all heard and probably forgotten “Back in the U.S.A.,” and the album, Living in the U.S.A., is a good deal less than proof that Ronstadt will be able to make a real future for herself.
Living in the U.S.A. is overproduced, though not in the ordinary sense: the music isn’t lush (no strings), it’s embalmed. There’s feeling here, but it’s rarely sustained. Again and again, emotion is subverted by a retreat to the fake glamour of technique, of “artistry”; the pristine quality of the sound (the sound of the disc, as opposed to that of the band, is lush) and of Ronstadt’s phrasing wars with the real-woman-talking promises the album wants to keep.
Ignore such unsalvagable corndogs as J.D. Souther’s “White Rhythm & Blues” (what is “white rhythm and blues,” anyway, aside from a witless counterimage for Souther’s beloved black roses—a racist affectation?): Ronstadt’s cover of Doris Troy’s “Just One Look” speaks for too much of the album. She means to change the song, and smartly; where Troy was passive and hopeful, she is predatory. But, except in rare moments, doesn’t sing from inside the song, she sings at it. It’s a formal exercise, she has a target to hit. When she pulls out all the technical stops for “I felt so high high HIGH,” the target (and the listener) is battered to bits.
Since most of Living in the U.S.A. tends to back up Ronstadt’s dumb-chick, producer’s-puppet rep, it seems to have blinded critics and DJs (and fans?) to its two surprising successes. Both Elvis Costello’s “Alison” and Warren Zevon’s “Mohammed’s Radio” are much too strong to be written off as anomalies; they’re surprising because they represent the most elusive material Ronstadt has tackled. No dumb chick or puppet, however brilliant the string-puller, could put them across.
Ronstadt fools with persona in “Alison.” By making the narrator a woman, dropping the sexual enmity of the original, she recasts the song into an exploration of the complexities of friendship. Here she’s totally convincing—one real person singing to another, as opposed to a pop star singing to an audience—and whether she was attracted by the song’s theme or its melody becomes irrelevant. Both seem to come from her heart. The only jarring moment is in the accompaniment: the soprano saxophone emerging (in John Rockwell’s words) from within Ronstadt’s last breath is startling, but it’s also terribly arty.
Nothing is wrong with “Mohammed’s Radio.” It’s a passionate, epiclike summation of a whole culture: the love-hate relationship whites have had with black music, the threat of race war, the emotional poverty of those whose lives are defined by rock and roll and nothing else. Every element of the song, every line, stands out more vividly in Ronstadt’s version than in Warren Zevon’s. By making the “village idiot” of the song a woman rather than a man, Ronstadt blatantly identifies herself with Mohammed’s mindless supplicants: it’s a brave move. She wipes the tune clean of irony—irony, it becomes clear once you’ve heard her, that Zevon used to protect himself from his own vision.
Ronstadt protects herself with sheen and facility—and the safe, obfuscating balance of oldies, contemporary schlock romanticism, and individuality. In the context of an album like Living in the U.S.A., that individuality can seem like mere quirkiness. If the mold—the formula—isn’t broken, Ronstadt will stay right where she is now: at the fringes of rock and roll, less defining it than feeding off it. But if her next single were “This Year’s Girl” instead of “Maybe Baby”…
Village Voice, November 6, 1978