by Ellen Lansky

One of the many gratifying outcomes of reading texts rooted in research and documentation is that they invite their readers to continue their own writing and research process. In this respect, Joanna McNaney Stein’s book about k.d. lang’s 1992 Grammy Award-winning Ingénue—part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series of short books about individual albums—is a productive and satisfying reading experience. Stein’s book also invites readers into another productive and satisfying experience, which is listening to records. It is one thing to hear a single on the radio or a playlist, but listening to an LP from first track to last, perhaps while reading the liner notes, is a way to become immersed in a particular complete project: the album. This kind of listening can transport us to a particular cultural moment, an emotional location the compilation both produces and reflects. The way that Stein listens to and writes about Ingénue immerses readers in an emotional place that may be as familiar and nostalgic as memory itself.

My own research and listening began before I even finished Stein’s book. My first action was to re-listen to k.d. lang’s previous album Shadowland. Then I went to my personal archives (the basement) to locate an interview with lang called “The Making of Shadowland,” recorded on a Maxell cassette tape that the owner of Rock-It Records in Minneapolis gave me in 1988, the year of that album’s release. I listened to Shadowland again and recalled the night I’d seen lang’s show at First Avenue.

It seems that everybody in Minneapolis has a story about First Avenue. Mine is set in the hot summer of 1988. My girlfriend at the time and I were at a bit of a crossroads or, more precisely, an uncontrolled intersection. We agreed upon one thing: we loved k.d. lang. We’d seen her on the cable TV broadcast of Roy Orbison and Friends, a Black and White Night, in which lang—twenty feet from stardom—sings the choruses and ‘ooh ahhs’ with Jennifer Warnes and Bonnie Raitt. In the discomfiting summer of ‘88, I heard on the radio in my un-airconditioned car that lang and her band were going to be at First Avenue, so I stopped at the record store and got tickets. My girlfriend and I loved the show, though the fact that her favorite song was “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So” and mine was “Lock, Stock, and Teardrops” was prognostic.

The first part of Stein’s book includes a survey of lang’s albums, including Shadowland, and follows the singer’s trajectory from her appearance on Letterman in 1986 through the pivotal appearances on Carson, her albums with the Reclines, and her Grammy awards. Stein also writes of the exclusion lang experienced from the country music industry, especially by the radio stations that refused to play her music. Stein finishes Part I with a focus on the accolades and acceptance lang finally received from figures such as the legendary Nashville producer, Owen Bradley, and the influential and sometimes other-worldly Roy Orbison—with whom lang created a Grammy-winning duet of Orbison’s song “Crying” (23).

One of strongest, most original parts of McNaney Stein’s Ingénue is Chapter 6: “Ingénue Track-by-Track.” In this chapter, Stein analyzes the instruments, lyrics, and connections between the tracks on Ingénue as well as the connections to other musicians and music: Joni Mitchell, Lawrence Welk, Jazz and Latin influences, and, in a particularly nimble move, a link between lang’s track “Seasons of Hollow Soul” and the “ending of ABBA’s “Chiquitita” on their 1979 album Voulez Vous” (55). Stein admits that while “it might take several listens to hear how the two are similar,” the songs share “a similar chord progression, and percussive elements” (55). Her ear is acute, and so is her ability to convey the effects of those similar sounds in words.

Then, the “Critics and Coming Out” chapter makes a deft braid of the events surrounding lang’s coming out in national (straight) media sources and the author’s own coming out in a suburb of Rochester, New York. Some of the strengths of Stein’s book are the personal narrative chapters in which listening to Ingénue, especially the track “Constant Craving,” creates a visceral, physical response. She recalls that the first time she heard “Constant Craving” on the radio, in her parents’ car, she “wanted to cry…and didn’t understand why” (58).  Readers who were fifteen, her age, and in her stage in the coming out process happening all over in the 1990s will connect with Stein’s description and creation of an emotional place that a person feels in their body. Ingénue, the song and the album, figure prominently in the soundtrack or soundscape of this emotional place and are likely to trigger some powerful feelings, especially for people who were “there” then.

As Stein demonstrates, Ingénue and the coming out of k.d. lang on TV in 1992 rippled across the landscape of pop music. Interestingly, the reception lang got when she came out was similar to the reaction that Stein got from her parents in 1995 when she, hoping to find a “middle ground,” told her parents she was “bisexual.” Her dad pats her on the back, her mom freaks out and starts repeating herself: “Bisexual. What does that word mean? What does that word mean…. I want to know. I want to know…I don’t get it. I don’t get it” (74-75). The mom’s tone and repetitions hearken back to broadcast journalist Connie Chung’s 1990 interview with k.d. lang, in which Chung says to lang, “I’m kinda’ trying to figure out what this androgynous thing is with you…” (71). Like Stein’s mom, Connie Chung doesn’t get it.

Finally, Stein’s compact book reminds readers about the importance of listening to records. For people who were, and perhaps still are, looking for the comfort and solace one finds in representation, Stein observes that, when she was young, “If bookstores couldn’t help, and movies couldn’t help, maybe the record shop could” (19). This help is still available. It’s worth noting that in early 2024, Tracy Chapman’s appearance on the Grammys to perform her song “Fast Car” with Luke Combs helped many people in the same ways. The performance enabled listening viewers to see and hear the ways that a 36-year-old song by a queer Black woman folk-rock singer, sung in duet with a young white male country music star, created nostalgic and new connections—while also leading thousands of people to buy Chapman’s track and, indeed, her first album. For Stein, lang’s album enabled her to “take back my voice and write (104),” and in doing so she opens spaces for other readers, writers, and listeners. Reading Stein’s compact book, then listening, then remembering, and then writing creates a dense, complex audiophile experience.  

Ellen Lansky’s essay “Power Tool Mishaps: Women and Alcohol in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s ‘Playhouse'” appeared Michigan Salvage: The Fiction of Bonnie Jo Campbell (2023). She lives in Minneapolis and teaches at Inver Hills Community College.

SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 10 • June 2024
Header image by Shannon.