My arrangement of Lady Marmalade for the quartet dIVa is coming out of its exclusivity period and into my main catalogue tomorrow, so it seemed like a good moment to talk about some of the challenges this song presented in terms of suitability to performer.
There are two well-known versions of this song, the original from the 1970s and the more recent version from Moulin Rouge . Both tell a story of a man enjoying extraordinarily good sex in a brief encounter with Lady Marmalade, which then haunts his memories back in real life. The original is set in New Orleans, while the movie version is moved to the Moulin Rouge.
Now this song might present some feminists with a problem in the way it positions the female performers in the persona of a woman defined entirely in terms of the sexual services she can perform for men. But this isn’t really a problem here: performers can either choose to sing it or not. There is also scope to revel in a powerful sexuality and its capacity to control men, so performers can position themselves as strong characters in charge of their own destiny. (If we’re worried about songs positioning women as victims, I’d be more concerned about Dusty Springfield’s Wishin & Hopin – due into the catalogue in July.)
More of an issue is the narrative of race. Lady Marmalade is depicted as mixed-race – that is, as the result of what would traditionally be a forbidden liaison in the American South. The stereotype of the mixed-race woman as happy hooker is a pervasive cultural image that conflates elements both of sexual and racial Othering: projecting onto other social groups those aspects of identity that the dominant culture finds both alluring and disturbing. For example, Noel Coward wrote a song called ‘Half-Caste Woman’ which plugs into the same theme, and the opera Carmen has more than a touch of it too.
Now, in the famous recorded versions, the singers are either black, or a mixture of racial backgrounds, so again there is a sense that, if they are okay with inhabiting that story, then the audience is likely to go with them. But for an all-white group to sing it makes things much less comfortable. It’s rather like saying: well, I’m a nice white girl, but I like to go and pretend to be mixed-race to play with the idea of having a strong sexuality. It feels wrong.
So, I chose to jigger with the text. The move from New Orleans to the Moulin Rouge had already taken it out of the hotbed of racial politics to a more European sexual context, and a couple more small tweaks took out the explicit references to race. So, instead of ‘Creole Lady Marmalade’, we have ‘Real Lady Marmalade’. And instead of her skin being ‘the colour of café au lait’, it has the ‘scent of warm crème brulee’. So, it’s still using metaphors of sensuality based in French cuisine, but it’s not saying explicitly that she’s sexy because of her race.
In both cases, the intention was to keep the word sounds as close to the original as possible, so as not to draw attention to the changes. My thinking was that most people in a European audience wouldn’t have thought very deeply about the lyrics, they’d just enjoy the generally sexy feel with good music. So, I didn’t want to disturb their enjoyment. But anyone who might have been worried about the racial connection and might be listening out for the lyrics would have the changes to calm their anxieties.
The two racial references I didn’t change were firstly the name itself – my guess was that, again, most European (and possibly most American?) listeners wouldn’t immediately grasp that the word marmalade had racial implications. (When I learned that it did, that did make more sense of the song – I had wondered why they were singing about a traditional breakfast food….) The other was the ‘mocha chocolata’ bit in the chorus – without the more specific racial references, this just fades back into the sensuality/food metaphor, and besides comes in a section that is mostly nonsense syllables anyway.
And if anyone doubts my suggestion that most people connect much more strongly with the music of a song than its words – well, the first ensemble to enquire about singing this arrangement once it becomes available was a male chorus from Germany called Herrenbesuch. Watch out for them – I think they’re going to have fun with it!