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Amazon to start its biggest Black Friday sale yet on 16 November

Amazon's Black Friday Sale 2018 is to be its biggest yet, running from 16 November to the 25th. Here's what you need to know.
Amazon is all set for its biggest Black Friday sale yet with ten days of discounts on electronics, toys, games, fashion, beauty and home products. Black Friday deals begin 16 November and end on the 25th.

Mary Margaret O’Hara - Miss America Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we explore the ecstatic songs on Mary Margaret O’Hara’s cult hit Miss America.

Miss America stubbornly emerged in 1988, named because Mary Margaret O’Hara thought the record was “so much unlike what those two words together said.” The Canadian singer had been made to feel irrational for pursuing her vision (she knew what people said about her: quirky, eccentric, I’ve heard chickens sing better than that), and the grueling process of getting the album out into the world left her emotionally and physically tired, disinclined “to bother people with my own things.”

Her story is familiar in many ways: a powerful label discovering a young female talent, capturing it, then attempting to quash her idiosyncratic style, repeatedly sending her back to the drawing board in search of a hit. What isn’t familiar is O’Hara, no placid archetype, a one-of-a-kind torch singer whose flame floats free of the match. She is an improviser who stacks words and melody in real time to try to approximate a feeling only to immediately question the results, like a sculptor meticulously pressing clay into the shape of a face then wondering why they had ever thought it might appear human. Navigating an unimaginative record industry was small fry for O’Hara, who was then a 38-year-old singer devoted to conceiving a form of expression that transcended physical bounds and conventional relationships. She went in search of pure, unmediated sensation and dared others to experience it with her. As she sneers on “Year in Song”: “Now hit those gleaming faces hard/Though they’ll try to miss it.”

Plenty did. Miss America remains a cult album 30 years after its release, cited occasionally by Nick Cave, Perfume Genius, Neko Case, Tanya Donelly, and the Dirty Three. It would be too easy and somewhat disingenuous to lay the blame for its disappearance at the feet of a sexist music industry—in Britain, at least, it was greeted with total reverence. (That is how you imagine Morrissey discovered it, inspiring him to ask O’Hara to howl on his 1993 song “November Spawned a Monster.”) Maybe some failure of promotion on Virgin’s part denied Miss America its rightful standing alongside the decade’s other jarring noir masterpieces like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones, and Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man.

But its creator also wasn’t committed to attaining those heights, disappearing soon after its release. It remains her only full-length album. O’Hara’s disinterest in pursuing success is in keeping with how she expresses longing on Miss America: desire is open-ended and without objects on songs called “To Cry About” and “My Friends Have”; a strange force that mangles her country-tinged balladry. While achieving transcendence through music wasn’t novel at the dawn of pop, let alone 1988, the way in which O’Hara sang about needing to escape the physical confines of her body to do so is just one of the qualities that gives Miss America its contemporary resonance. There is comfort and power in hearing ideas around the confines of gender and physical limitations being echoed back across a 30-year divide.

As convinced as Virgin was that Miss America was an unsellable anomaly, O’Hara’s debut isn’t totally abstract by any means. There are moments of impossibly tender melody that could soundtrack a big-haired ’80s romantic comedy or even a jazzy supper club rendezvous were it not for her destabilizing presence. The firelight in her ballads flickers just enough to suggest something malevolent lingering beyond the window. Her jaunty moments have a rictus determination, and her spiritual pleas could be frightening. Sometimes she drags behind the beat; sometimes her players struggle to keep up. “I am usually trying to jump out of my own skin,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “Not trying, though—it’s natural. You know how you can do something and your brain’s just a little bit behind? The thought of doing it is a little bit behind the action?... I don’t like to watch where I’m going.”

If O’Hara had any direction, it was forward into joy: “Joy is the aim,” she repeats on “Year in Song.” Here, her band is steady—moody, loose, a little corrosive twang—but she is a dervish, beating the phrase like a blacksmith. She sings it with idle sweetness, gasps and chews at it until she is spitting scrambled consonants—“See, the aim, eh, joy?” as if nudging the concept, in cahoots with it—and whimpering to an end. She moves in and out of her fraught incantation, seeming to address anyone watching her in the throes of this process: “Pretty soon too much,” she rasps, or taunts, perhaps aware that there will be people who find her pursuit grotesque. She suspected as much from how she made her band “lose their sense of rhythm for a while.” “Maybe I don’t realize how uncomfortable that makes some people,” she told the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2002.

There’s no concrete narrative threaded through Miss America, though O’Hara returns to what sounds like a relationship with a person who did not share her vast capacity for ecstasy. Beauty and defeat intermingle on “Dear Darling,” a dusky tear-catcher where O’Hara’s natural vibrato rivals the smoky twirl of the pedal steel around her. And “Keeping You in Mind” is a pouty coffee-shop waltz that tries to reckon with this person’s fears—“Don’t you think that I’m worried too?”—before returning to another of O’Hara’s central tenets: Holding on to one good thought, strong in your mind, makes both solitude and physical unions immaterial. “I’m still happy with what I’ve got,” she muses: “Not having you/But keeping you in mind.” She suggests self-knowledge is key to joy on “When You Know Why You’re Happy,” a woozy meditation in which an upright bass note reliably stretches and contracts beneath O’Hara’s exploratory approach. “You move much better than you know/Not just some jerky to and fro,” she sings, stacking her impressions in real time again, “when you know why you’re happy.” Her lovely tribute comes after the precarious jubilation of “Anew Day,” a vampy ode to new beginnings that’s occasionally unsettled by harsh, ragged traces entering her voice.

O’Hara’s euphoric defiance might seem woo-woo if we didn’t hear her pain. Her most famous song is “Body’s in Trouble,” which bridges the gap between Miss America’s more languorous and choppy sides. “You want to kiss, feel, take, hear, ride, stop, start somebody/And a body won’t let you,” she grieves, becoming ragged, dragged along by the guitar’s circadian tide: “Who do you talk to when a body’s in trouble?” she implores. It’s not even her body, it’s simply a body. O’Hara’s sense of dislocation, rendering her incapable of accessing neither the divine nor the quotidian, comes through more strongly on “My Friends Have” where she wails amid irritable, detuned post-punk about her distance from the chattering world: “I want to get what my friends got,” she mumbles, a few seconds off-cue. “Just physical and some small talk.”

The small stakes of her plea amplify its sorry unattainability, though O’Hara refuses to be deterred from her reach for liberation. If “Not Be Alright” is Miss America’s weakest song—scatty guitar chopping around distracting wobble-board bass—it’s where she recommits to her quest for unmediated intensity: “No curtains on the windows/No covers on the beds/She lays them out on the floor/And she rips them up to shreds,” she yelps in a halting fashion that sounds as if she’s trying to approximate backmasking’s slippery sensation, making her desecration of domestic comforts even more unsettling. “It will not just be alright,” she repeats, barking and seething, sounding so wired with torment and resistance that it’s almost frightening. You feel her heels digging in.

O’Hara’s breakdown of language and unsteady presence mean that quite a bit of Miss America can feel disconcerting to listen to. Its instability often recalls exaggerated cinematic portrayals of people experiencing episodes related to poor mental health—and O’Hara knew that some quarters talked about her as if she was crazy. This diagnosis, she told Melody Maker in 1989, was just another example of a restricted imagination: “I think a lot of the people they say are mentally ill, it’s just ways of thinking.” Making one album and vanishing certainly implies fragility and an inability to bear industry pressures, and O’Hara’s relative withdrawal from the public eye affirms notions of her as a recluse. But what if she got everything she needed from that one album? What if what scans as trauma to unfamiliar ears is actually the sound of escape? From its title down, Miss America defies the notion that women should be pliant, steady vessels and forges a beguilingly fractured statement that holds its secrets to this day.


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