A Golden Girl Returns: Toni Braxton’s Pulse

By Daniel Garrett

Toni Braxton, Pulse
Executive Producers Craig Kallman and Vincent Herbert
Atlantic, 2010

“You are so yesterday,” sings Toni Braxton in “Yesterday,” a song in which betrayal diminishes a woman’s love; and Toni Braxton’s voice is as engaged as usual—intense—but the song’s instrumental arrangement is cluttered.  Sometimes busyness in music, as in life, is calculated to make us think something significant is happening, even when it is not.  It is a worrying beginning for the return of a golden girl, a performer whose appeal and success have become international.  The fast, jazzy beat of “Make My Heart” has more apparent charm, suggesting the frenzied anticipation that often marks infatuation, but its energy sounds more forced than inspired, with the music working as competition rather than complement for a singer whose gift has been a formidable grasp of emotion.  Such are the travails of a diva entering the second phase of her career.  For years, the glamorous, soulful popular music Toni Braxton has made has been distinct enough to garner respect, and familiar enough to remain accessible.  Should she do what she’s done before or something new?  Can she trust associates, songwriters and producers, to care as much as she does?  What does the audience want now?  “I could love you with my hands tied,” sings Braxton after a nice piano introduction in the low-voiced admission of love “Hands Tied,” her vocal mannerisms perceptible (such as that tough emphatic way she clips words, and that gasp of breath as punctuation).  I like Toni Braxton, and wish her well, but I know she is not the first singer to look around and find the field more crowded and competitive.  One question is, Will her confidence be shaken?  Another question follows: Will she make choices in fear rather than faith?

Toni Braxton’s sound—not simply of emotion, but of authority and maturity—is center stage in the ballad “Woman,” about the status of a woman in a relationship.  “I need to be touched, I need to be loved” and “I’m not your friend, who only needs you sometimes,” Braxton sings.  (The fat beat in the song calls to mind that in certain songs of two different performers, Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross.)  Braxton is great with ballads.  Sympathy for a wounded person, with a commitment to maintain ties, is given in “If I Have to Wait,” in which her diction is careful, clear, convincing.  Those two songs—“Woman” and “If I Have to Wait”—are demonstrations of Toni Braxton’s lasting power, but then she performs the admittedly flirtatious, fierce, and fun “Lookin’ at Me,” which has the circle group rhythm that Beyonce has mastered and made freshly popular.  (I imagine that Beyonce is a performer who now casts such a large shadow that even singers who came before her must feel the need to contend with her, in one way or another.)  The lightness of “Lookin’ at Me,” which Toni Braxton handles with an appropriate ease, is matched by that of “Wardrobe,” in which a renewal of spirit is expressed through clothes.  A man is a hero to a woman’s heart in “Hero” (“You rescued me,” sings Braxton), a song with a distorted rhythm, a scratchy skittish beat.  Yet, song after song, whatever their strengths or weaknesses, the themes of rhythm-and-blues and popular music are too circumscribed—too much focused on the seasons of love, with their mostly inclement weather—for an intelligent person who expects a vision of a complex world.  I wonder what Toni Braxton might do with the repertoire of Peggy Lee or Dinah Washington, or with more experimental material.

“I’m gonna prove my love is true,” sings Braxton in the downbeat but melodious Michael Warren song “No Way,” with its simple, spare rhythm.  Her voice is what gives her songs their greatest distinction.  Obviously, the strategies a performer uses to make herself recognizable, respectable, and relevant become part of her character and content, not merely her cover; but one wonders about the world of work and politics in which the described relationships, the things sung about, take place.  What challenges or strengthens a woman’s character apart from love?  Toni Braxton has faced real trouble in the world, having to do with finance and health, with life and death matters, and it would be enriching to have something of that expressed in her work: in terms of metaphor and story, not blunt confession or description.  Instead, there are reports that Braxton will be involved in a television program—a “reality show”—on her life.  Does she want sympathy or understanding?  We seem to exist in a time when artists trust their art less to express their experience than direct forms of documentary or memoir, which are not known for beauty, complexity, dignity, or transcendence.  If life were ever enough, there would be no need for art, philosophy, or politics.  It is no surprise that the public likes to observe the bruise, stain, and stink of brute facts, but if that is justification enough for personal exposure and exploitation, there is little hope for the evolution of civilization.

Toni Braxton’s line readings are dramatic in “Pulse,” about faith sustained despite rumors that a love is dying (the piano introduction and later orchestral sweep help).  “Why won’t you love me the way I need to be loved?” she asks in the likable if not charming “Why Won’t You Love Me” and for a moment one can imagine that the song—like “Woman”—could be about Braxton as musician rather than lover.  One form of attention can be symbolic of another.  The song “Why Won’t You Love Me” is a sobbing ballad with what sounds like incongruous finger snaps; and in it Braxton asks, “What’s wrong with me?”  The answer is, Nothing; and one hopes that she believes it—and begins to turn her own attention to some of the unique facets of the world.

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.  Daniel admires classic and modern literature and philosophy, and likes painting and sculpture, French film, Afghan and Indian food, jazz, rock, and world music; and he has said, “No one can remain young, but each of us can try to remain aware, responsive, creative.”  Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.”  He returned to the American south, where he worked on a novel, A Stranger on Earth, begun in New York.

Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com