Dusty in Heaven

Dusty Springfield, 1939­1999

Through much of her life, sadly, Dusty did not like herself. Memphis coproducer Jerry Wexler has said she insisted on doing her vocals with the instrumental backing in her headphones as loud as possible because she didn't want to hear her own voice. Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant recalls how his heroine insisted on recording her vocals one syllable at a time for their 1987 number-two hit "What Have I Done to Deserve This?," her highest-charting American record ever. Soon after Dusty blurted out in a 1970 interview that "I'm as perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy," she retreated to L.A., where she developed drinking and drug problems, and even attempted suicide. She cleaned up, but her career never recovered, and her music fell from near-continual brilliance to mere sporadic transcendence.

That shift is obvious after the first few cuts on the final disc of her '97 Anthology. The material suddenly gets schlocky and bloated, and her voice often feels thin, labored, and lost until the Pets bring Dusty back to her refined pop-soul roots. Everything clicks on '89's "In Private," a haunting, veiled allusion to forbidden love that's completely understood by its intended audience— in England, Dusty is both mourned publicly by the queen (the real one) and revered by lesbians and gays as the quintessential pop icon whose mix of public exuberance and personal anguish not only mirrors their own but also is their own. In America, "In Private" remains one of the only noncurrent early-morning anthems of a gay circuit party scene that ordinarily (and fearfully) refuses to look back. Her lung power here is diminished, but her urgency lives on.

Her urgency lives on.
King Collection/RETNA
Her urgency lives on.

Although it's rarely acknowledged, Dusty's legacy is everywhere. There's a direct line between Dusty determination and Girl Power, the Dusty Springfield created by former folksinger and aspiring nun Mary O'Brien and the Ziggy Stardust forged by David Bowie. Look harder and you'll see the link between Dusty and k.d. lang, Boy George, Sleater-Kinney, Annie Lennox, Labelle, Teena Marie, Missy Elliott, Bonnie Raitt, X-Ray Spex, K.T. Oslin, George Michael, Living Colour, Elton, Alanis, Eminem, Janis— any performer who insists on stepping over a line they're warned never to cross. Dusty in Memphis delivers the emotional and musical masterstroke that every critic suggests, but the exhilaration doesn't begin and end there. Most of Anthology would sound timely today sandwiched between Britney Spears and Air, lowbrow and high, pop commerciality and avant-garde art, because Dusty was all those things. She was the original riot grrrl, a White Panther in a wig, a femme dyke who would be a drag queen, a nice Catholic girl your grandmother would and probably did like. She's my all-time favorite. I hope I hear Dusty in heaven.

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