The wrapping of kd lang: At Wembley on Wednesday there was George Michael, David Bowie, the Princess of Wales and a stylish woman who can do no wrong. Giles SDmith reports

Giles Smith
Friday 03 December 1993 00:02 GMT

On Tuesday, my phone rang. 'Hi. This is one of kd lang's assistants. Just calling to let you know that at the concert on Wednesday, kd will be wearing Dolce e Gabbana. Would you like me to spell that for you?'

Eighteen months ago, kd lang was a minority interest - a country and western singer from Canada with a tongue-in-cheek approach and a cult following. Then she made a pop album called Ingenue. Slowly, the music seeped out and the radio stations caught on and the magazine covers carrying her striking face stacked up.

And now, aged 32, she really has arrived, because someone even thinks you ought to know who makes her clothes.

This week, kd lang sang at Wembley Arena in the Concert of Hope, a fund-raiser tied in with World Aids Day. She was bottom of the bill, but as the bill featured only three people, she will not have regarded this as a slight. Certainly not in this company.

After her would come Mick Hucknall, the cocky, bronze-haired singer with Simply Red, whose music is everywhere, in shops and cars and petrol stations and homes. And after him would come George Michael, another multi-million-earning sex symbol whose career is, for now, depressingly sidelined by litigation. From lang's point of view - with just that one big-selling album behind her - these must have been hard acts to precede.

The Concert of Hope was Michael's idea - a quick break from his tedious troubles down at the law courts, where he is currently seeking to free himself from what he regards as a restrictive recording contract with Sony Music. And it was Michael's idea that lang should receive the ultimate accolade that our times can bestow on a pop performer - the requirement of their presence on the bill at a major charity event. If she could pull it off in these circumstances, she would know she was all the way there.

In the Arena, around a giant central stage, sat 12,000 people who had paid a generous ticket price (pounds 35) - and, inevitably, a bunch of media people who hadn't. After the Princess of Wales, the concert's patron, had taken her seat in the special enclosure above the stage, the lights went down and the show began.

David Bowie, who was acting as compere for the evening, stepped out in a fantastic suit. These days, when Bowie walks on at a fund-raiser, you get a firm grip on your seat and ready yourself for embarrassment. At the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert at Wembley Stadium last year, he quite unexpectedly dropped to his knees on the stage and, with a hand covering his brow, broodily intoned the Lord's Prayer. In the crowd, some 60,000 people didn't know what to do with themselves.

This time, though, he acquitted himself graciously - though one froze momentarily when he said wanted to 'break with royal protocol' by encouraging us to give 'a big, big hand' to the Princess. We all know that rock has become more respectable and more mainstream in our time, but this was pushing it to new heights - the rock star as subservient courtier.

When Bowie introduced lang, he said she was 'fast emerging as the classiest, most stylish performer of the Nineties'. The band started to play 'Constant Craving', her finest song and, thus far, her one genuine hit. And out on to the stage walked kd lang.

There's something in the way lang moves that reminds you how crudely the movements of female pop stars are circumscribed by stereotype. If you are Janet Jackson or Whitney Houston or Madonna, you stage a show which is basically your aerobics routine with costume changes. Annie Lennox seems to command a stage the way she wants to, but it takes her a lot of make-up and character-playing. kd lang, with that easy, wide-hipped stroll and that cool, slow grin, moves like someone freed up and comfortable about it.

Clearly, there are things she can't yet manage as a performer. She can't ignite the crowd the way Mick Hucknall did, whipping them up to a thunder of stamping feet by singing a tribute to sex called 'Do the Right Thing'. Nor can she tap into the kind of abandoned screams that greeted George Michael's first dance steps of the evening - four sensational, Olympic-standard, all-body moves. (And - what a tease - right under the royal box, too.)

But her strengths are of a different order. When she sings 'Constant Craving', she has the courage to hang the words slightly behind the rhythm, so that they seem to carry the weight of yearning which is the subject of the song. And when she hits the climax of Roy Orbison's 'Crying', the noise of her voice is astonishing. Both hard-edged and rich, it fills the hall, and it dawns on you that here, at last, is a modern pop star whose virtues are startlingly old-fashioned. Her skills are chiefly the skills of her heroes, Peggy Lee and Billie Holiday. She has fashioned herself as a supreme interpreter of songs in an age which has largely abandoned this practice in favour of beat.

'Miss kd lang]' shouted Bowie above the wild applause and screaming as she left. Bet she loved the 'Miss'. Two of the largest labels slapped on Kathy Dawn Lang since her days in Canada as a student and a radical performance artist, have read 'feminist' and 'vegetarian', the latter particularly going down badly with the largely cow-owning, meat-friendly country and western fraternity. (She says she writes her name in lower case, incidentally, because she never quite mastered capital letters.)

Pop stars stay on the track either by processes of radical self-reinvention or by skating blithely to avoid the ruts. kd lang appears to be a skater. It took her a long time to say publicly that she was a lesbian. She finally did so in June 1992, in an interview with the American gay magazine the Advocate. She said she was fed up with people asking.

But even after this, her stage performances turned the whole business into a glorious tease. Between songs, she would solemnly declare that she had something to confess to us all.

'I,' she would say, ponderously, 'am a llllll Liberace fan.'

She is hardly the first person in rock'n'roll to fashion an image for herself by toying with gender stereotypes, but she has done so with consummate style. Suits rarely look this good on a man. On the cover of Vanity Fair in August, she reclined, her face lathered up and smiling broadly, in a barber's chair, while behind, dressed in a bathing suit and high-heels, the supermodel Cindy Crawford wielded the razor. The video for her current single, taken from the soundtrack for the movie Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, features lang on her Harley-Davidson, picking up the actress Uma Thurman in the desert.

But she is too canny to nail herself to a style or an issue and then watch her fortunes fluctuate with it. She has been inordinately careful to avoid becoming an item on somebody else's sexual-political agenda, presumably because she realises how this would distract from and impoverish what she is first and foremost - which is a singer.

The Dolce e Gabbana number turned out to be a white wrap, roughly modelled on the Turin shroud. But, in the light of the following cameo of lang, it seems irrelevant to dwell on these things.

Earlier this year, she was hanging around at Paris airport the morning after a concert. She was about to get a flight back home to Los Angeles. She had no baggage with her, no books, no magazines, no Walkman. Crumpled up in her jacket pocket was a first-class ticket. Think of what would be involved in getting, say, Tina Turner across the Atlantic. Imagine the freight and the fret. But this is not how kd lang operates. She is travelling light.

(Photographs omitted)

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