Show Tune Liberation

Every day Nellie McKay wonders why she’s in the music business—but she definitely is

McKay may be mellowing, but it's more likely she's just gotten better at channeling her anger. Pretty Little Head is less caustic and more fluid than Get Away From Me, but it's still a rare beast: a pop record that matches supreme command of trad acoustic styles with blessed quirks and emotional complexities. On super-bright stuff like the Cyndi Lauper duet "Bee Charmer," and on "Cupcake," in which a disco queen's marriage proposal to his boyfriend is tied to a mega-campy falsetto hook, McKay's spotlight-seeking spunk could light up a dozen gay bars. Sincere slow ones like "Long and Lazy River" and

"Gladd" are just as effective—memorable and quietly beau-tiful, their sturdiness ought to counteract McKay's schizoid rep. Still, only three songs go for overt activism or social critique: the wickedly catchy minor-key dancepop of "The Big One," about heroic tenants' rights activist Bruce Bailey; "Columbia Is Bleeding," a speedy rant about animal testing in the university's labs; and the scary-funny poverty portrait "Food."

And yet, McKay attends up to three animal rights protests a week. Recently she's shelled out money for prosthetic surgery for Asian children with cleft lips, for an animal sanctuary in Pennsylvania, and to adopt a donkey in California and a cow upstate. She's working, too, composing 70 minutes of music for a film called The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom, and she begins Threepenny rehearsals in February. As we're leaving a Times Square restaurant—she wanted to find someplace "dirty and cheap," or at least a joint with vegetarian gravy, but it was cold—she taps my arm. "Please don't say I'm young in a good way," she says. "I've been really conscious about ageism. You don't have an anti-Irish cream, but you have anti-aging cream. It's not right. Being old is beautiful. Thank you."

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