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Queen for a Day

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If you think Mardi Gras in New Orleans is wild, try Queensday in Amsterdam. It is on the last day of April that the Dutch all flock to their capital, dress up in their national colors and celebrate the birthday of their beloved Queen Beatrix into the wee hours of the morning.

I vividly remember the first time I came to Amsterdam for Queensday a few years after I moved to the US. I was showing around some American co-workers and we took the train to Amsterdam Central Station.

This classy structure is usually the home of backpackers, hookers and other young hustlers, but that day a red, white and blue posse had taken over. As soon as we stepped out of the train, we were greeted by a vibrant mass of color, sound and smiling faces. A cosmopolitan mix of tourists and locals was moving like cattle through the city’s tiny cobblestone streets outside the railroad station.

Rain or shine, people are enjoying this national holiday step-by-step with kids selling lemon juice on the overcrowded pavements, musicians playing their instruments in Vondelpark and merchants on bicycle-carts cooking up fatty festival food all over the city center.

The Dutch not only take their celebrations into the streets, but also onto the water. Amsterdam is often called the Venice of the North with its many canals. On Queensday, partygoers cruise the city’s waterways on small pedal bikes and festive boats while getting the best views of the city.

During the annual gay pride in August, the canals are the home of thousands of gay men and women on wildly decorated floats.

Queensday is an exception to the Netherlands’ usual modestly. The Dutch rarely show pride in their rich historical heritage and accepting culture – let alone celebrate the birthday of their Queen.

The country’s sober protestant beginnings are often credited for its humility among other European countries.

Amsterdam has always been a safe haven for free spirits. Ever since the seventeenth century, artists, painters, writers, religious scholars and others fled from oppression in other parts of Europe to join the city’s thriving cultural and social community

No wonder that Amsterdam became a city of queers. The Dutch government has not only given gays and lesbians equal civil rights, but has also enabled gays to celebrate their lifestyle in complete freedom.

The Amsterdam city authority has supported its large gay constituency in many different ways. Wheter it is providing gays the freedom to buy their favorite toys at local sex stores, relax at one of the city’s large bath houses, remember their history at the national gay holocaust memorial or providing tax breaks for the flourishing gay business community.

The Reguliersdwarstraat (www.reguliersdwars.nl) is located smack in the middle of the city’s center. On Queensday this is the pink epicenter of Amsterdam. Some of the capital’s hippest bars are located in this narrow, curving street right behind the daily flower market (Remember that tulips and others flowers are one of the Netherlands' top export products).

During the annual celebration, the usual line-up of muscle boys, drag divas, leather hunks, euro-hip youngsters and a handful of lost foreign tourists take the festivities outside clubs like April, Arc, SoHo and Exit. House music is blasting from the windows, while local singers and performance artists sweep the crowd on a small podium in the middle of the street.

Dutch gays adore Queen Beatrix and many dress up like their own version of the royal diva with wild fashion, fierce make up and of course glittery crowns that can be spotted from miles away.

On Queensday in Amsterdam, everybody can be a queen. No matter what you believe in, what color you are or who you sleep with.

April 30, 2004 in Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)

A True Jem

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Jem couldn't believe her ears when she first heard Madonna's rendition of "Nothing Fails." The Welsh musician had co-written the song almost two years earlier with famed producer Guy Sigsworth, who then passed the track on to the Material Mom, "Nothing Fails" surfaced on Madonna's "American Life" album, and helped propel Jem into the international spotlight.

"I heard it for the first time in her manager's boardroom and I thought to myself 'this is the weirdest thing," Jem tells arjanwrites.comfrom her home in West London. "It was a surreal moment."

She recently released her debut album "Finally Woken" on Dave Matthew's ATO label. The record is a progressive mix of catchy pop, hip-hop and electronica. The singer’s distinct songwriting appears deceivingly simple, but has an emotional intensity that will likely appeal to many.

Songs such as "Just A Ride," "Finally Woken" and the single "They" all reflect Jem’s positive and pragmatic outlook on life.

Jem’s interest in music emerged when she worked as a DJ agent and party promoter in Brighton, England. In 1999, she wanted to give way to her own artistic ambitions and moved to London to collaborate with a number of writers/producers, including Guy Sigsworth. Some of her early demo tracks were played on the influential Los Angeles-based radio station KCRW that eventually sparked the interest of ATO Records.

Some might compare Jem to other British female vocalists such as Dido, Beth Orton and Portishead. Jem appreciates "the lovely comparison" but does not entirely agree. "The only thing we have in common is that we have a soft voice and that we are from the UK. Musically I don’t see many similarities."

Rightfully, Jem's music is more upbeat than Dido’s melancholic songwriting. "I am an eternal optimist, which doesn't mean I haven’t seen a lot of shit," the star smiles. "You just have to appreciate every second of your life.”"

She finds it hard to describe her music to people that are not familiar with her sound. "I guess it is a good thing that it is hard to describe. That means it is different," she says. "I suppose you can shelve it under popular music."

Given her background, it comes as no surprise that the singer takes a keen interest in hip-hop and dance music. "I usually prefer a backing with strong beats and baselines," she says. "I'd put my songs under pop because of my emphasis on melody and the consistent structure of the songs, which makes it quite hooky."

Jem worked with hip-hop producer Ge-ology (Mos Def, Talib Kweli) and producer Yoad Nevo to give her album an eclectic, hip flavor. "Yoad has a lot of crazy instruments on the wall in his studio," says the singer. "When we recorded a song we tried to figure out what it was calling for and then we just picked out an instrument from the wall that we added."

The singer recently decided the move to Los Angeles to prepare for a tour and many media appearances. She has great memories about Los Angeles, New York and Miami in particular.

"I've been to Miami twice and I remember getting drunk there," she laughs. "I’ve been there for the Winter Music Conference. I had a great time, but I probably haven’t experienced the proper Miami. When the conference takes over everybody is a bit mad."

April 27, 2004 in Interviews | Permalink | Comments (4)

Cyndi Lauper on Marriage

"I don’t get why people are up in arms over it. Who the heck is it hurting? Do we really need this to distract us from what’s going on in the world? I know a lot of gay parents who are better parents and more caring about their families than some heterosexual families."

Cyndi Lauper in Houston Voice

April 26, 2004 in Artists on Gay Marriage | Permalink | Comments (0)

Blondie's Roots Are Showing

Blondie revolutionized New York music scene in the late ’70s with its unique brand of glam-powered punk rock. The enigmatic quality of lead vocalist Deborah Harry made the band one of the most notable alternatives to disco.

Thirty years after the group’s formation, Blondie is back with a second comeback album, ironically titled “The Curse Of Blondie.” The band also has embarked on a nationwide tour this spring in conjunction with the CD release.

One of Blondie’s greatest accomplishments is that the group dared to stretch musical boundaries. The band is strongly rooted in punk and new wave, but did not hesitate to push the envelope in the studio and onstage to capture a wide variety of musical tastes, including those of gays.

Early on, gays embraced Harry’s diva-like stage presence and campy performances, which were often parodies on the typical blond stereotype. She also frequently attended New York’s annual drag festival Wigstock.

The singer, now 58, firmly established herself as a gay favorite after cameo appearances in movies such as “Hairspray” and a guest role on “Will & Grace” in 2003. Most recently, she was featured on VH1’s “Totally Gayer.”

Deborah Harry officially formed Blondie in 1974 with drummer Clement Burke, guitarist Chris Stein, bassist Gary Valentine (who was later replaced by Frank Infante) and keyboard player James Destri.

The band released its self-titled debut album in 1976, but it was not until a year later that the group’s second album, “Plastic Letters,” delivered the single “Denis Denis,” which was a hit in the U.K.

The group had a few more noteworthy hits, including “Rapture” and the reggae-infused “The Tide Is High.

Harry took advantage of her success with Blondie, which broke up in 1982, to develop a solo career. She collaborated with Giorgio Morodor on the memorable “Call Me,” the theme to the film “American Gigolo,” which starred Richard Gere.

In many ways “The Curse of Blondie,” is everything that the group’s first comeback album, “No Exit,” in 1999 wasn’t. “No Exit” was a poor attempt by the band to sound relevant by including musical styles that simply seemed too much of a stretch.

One of the best examples of what went wrong involved the odd coupling of Harry and rapper Coolio on the album’s title track.

On “The Curse of Blondie,” the group has partially succeeded in reinventing itself again, with help from producer Steve Thompson.

The album’s 14 songs feature a vintage Blondie sound that includes a variety of genres with a stylish pop rock lining and Harry’s seductive vocals. The opening track, “Shakedown,” is an unconvincing R&B/hip-hop track with Harry rapping nonsense rhymes that seem silly and out of place.

Thankfully, she goes back to singing on the up-tempo “Good Boys,” a playful nod to Blondie’s past, with its tight electro arrangement and catchy melody.

On the climatic “Rules for Living,” group members revive their classic spirit with a dramatic guitar riff and Harry’s poetic storytelling.

Toward the CD’s conclusion, Blondie includes a fitting experimental jazz jam on “Desire Brings Me Back.” The song “Hello Joe” is dedicated to friend Joey Ramone, who was an important musical ally during Blondie’s heyday in the ’70s.

Now that Blondie’s members are reaching retirement age, however, the inevitable cracks and wrinkles are starting to show. Though Harry still shows zest on “Good Boys,” most of the album fails to make a memorable impression.

April 23, 2004 in Music Reviews | Permalink | Comments (0)

Gay is Fabulous

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"I cried the first time I saw 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.' When the gay guys and the straight guy hugged each other at the end … Well, that did more for gay-straight relations than a million dollars worth of seminars. The show proves that being gay is not contagious but fabulousness is.

Nia Vardalos in the Dallas Voice speaking about her new movie "Connie & Carla."

April 21, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1)