Vanity Fear

A Pretentious A**hole's Guide to B-Movie Bullsh*t

I am one of those people who generally abhors the concept of the “guilty pleasure”, especially when the term is applied to aspects of popular culture (that said I do think it has some merit if your pleasures involve, say, cutting people up with chainsaws or punching random senior citizens in their genitals), but if I were more open to the term I would probably apply it to my appreciation of the music of Mr. Michael Lee “Meat Loaf” Aday.

I say this because even though I find it nearly impossible not to listen to one of his songs whenever I encounter one, I have never actually gone so far as to purchase one of his albums and listen to it in its entirety.  For some reason I’m too lazy to articulate I’ve always resisted being a person who owns a copy of Bat Out of Hell , even though I am able to appreciate the epic brand of rock cheesiness it personifies more than any other recording in musical history.

So I have to admit that I am something of a Meat Loaf dilettante and nowhere near the expert this post deserves, but still having long been fascinated by the phenomena it describes I feel it is my duty to ignore my own ignorance and plow straight ahead as if I actually have a fucking clue in regards to what I’m writing about.

I am, of course, referring to:
The Meat Loaf Backup Singer Dynamic

Unlike many performers, for whom backup singers simply represent another section of their band, the nature of Meat Loaf’s songbook requires the presence of at least one backup performer who is capable of engaging with him on a one to one level.  Songs like Paradise By the Dashboard Light, Real Dead Ringer For Love, I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) and Couldn’t Have Said It Better are all centered around a specifically Meat Loaf-ian (or perhaps, more accurately, Jim Steinman-ian) he said/she said in which the she said is as prominent and important as the he said.  Given this and the strongly sexual nature of the text, the prototypical Meat Loaf Backup Singer has to be more than a pretty face with a decent voice, but also a profoundly erotic performer capable of matching the famously melodramatic singer blow for blow.  

This may seem like a lot to ask from one person and reality bears this out, as a quick overview of the most important Meat Loaf Backup Singers proves that only one of them had what it took to provide the full package.  She alone stands as the one person on the planet who can properly be called The Perfect Meat Loaf Backup Singer.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves….
We begin our look at the women who helped make Meat the Loaf that he is now with the album that first made famous—Bat Out of Hell.  On it the major female parts were handled by the singer/actress Ellen Foley, who—despite having a musical career that spawned several solo albums—remains best known today for her role as the public defender who wasn’t Markie Post in the embryonic first season of Night Court (ie. those 22 episodes that always seemed so bizarrely out of place when the series was eventually syndicated).

In terms of the Meat Loaf backup singer archetype, Foley only filled in half of the necessary equation—possessing a big, powerful voice, but lacking in the requisite hotness, which is why when it came time to record a video clip for Paradise By the Dashboard Light, she was nowhere to be found (being replaced by sexier actresses apparently being a recurring leitmotif throughout her career).

In her place we were given the adorable red-lipped pout of Karla Devito, whose appearance in a pair of skin-tight jeans and halter top was enough to distract people away from the fact that she was lip-synching to another woman’s vocals.  In fact the effect was so successful, most people assumed that it was Devito and not Foley who sang on the song—a delusion which allowed Devito to snag her own recording contract, which resulted in a handful of albums you’ve never heard of and several music videos (like the one below) that you’ve never seen.

Like Foley, Devito lacked the full Meat Loaf backup singer package—possessing the palpable sex appeal (at least in the famous promo clip—subsequent media appearances suggest this was something of a fluke occurrence), but lacking the powerful Broadway voice that the lyrical melodrama any song written by Jim Steinman (who also gave us the immortal Bonnie Tyler classic Total Eclipse of the Heart) requires.  Following the failure of her brief solo career, she left the life of show business to be the wife of faded 70’s teen idol Robby Benson.

Following the enormous success of Bat Out of Hell, Loaf’s career hit what can only be called a rough patch.  On his follow up album, Dead Ringer, he recorded a duet with Cher entitlied Real Dead Ringer For Love, which marked his first collaboration with an artist who met both of the Meat Loaf Backup Singer requirements.  But, since the song is actually a duet performed by equals, Cher cannot properly be considered a true example of the archetype.
Unfortunately for Loaf, Dead Ringer was a commercial disappointment, as were its three successors.  Knowing that the future of his career now depended on recreating the magic of his first triumph, Loaf decided to do just that and he reconnected with Steinmen in the early 90s to record Bat Out of Hell II: Bat Into Hell.  Once again lighting struck and Meat Loaf suddenly found himself recharged as a relevant pop music performer, thanks largely to the popularity of the album’s epic first single, I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) and the very memorable music video that accompanied it.
There are many folks who will argue quite passionately that this 1993 hit single represents a nadir in the history of popular music—a bombastic piece of schlock-romanticism designed purely to appeal to those who lack the refinement required to appreciate far more worthy and subtle efforts.  Others choose to dismiss it because of its maddening vagueness (ie. the narrator’s refusal to specify what exactly it is that he refuses to do).  Both of these groups are composed of assholes.  Not only is I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) one of the greatest songs released in the early 90s, its genius is the result of both the bombast and vagueness that drives its detractors insane.  While from a distance it may seem that the song is the musical antithesis of the dominant sound of that period—the melancholic hard rock of Grunge—its emotional subtext belies its Broadway aesthetic.  Not only does the song share the same sense of sadness and loss that defined the musical lamentations of Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and their ilk, but it also denies us our desire to unlock its secrets.  Just as the world will never really know what is significant about A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido or why Jeremy spoke in class today, so too we are denied the knowledge of what that is, which requires us to jumpstart the rusty motors of our imagination and come to our own insightful conclusions (personally, I always assumed it had something to do with anal sex)—that it does this with a bravado and chutzpah unknown to the originators of the Seattle sound only makes the song that much more special.

History repeated itself when it came to the music video for the rejuvenating single.  On the album the female vocal was credited simply to a Ms. Loud, who in reality was a British nightclub performer named Lorraine Crosby.  As was the case with Ellen Foley, Crosby’s vocal prowess was greater than her visual appeal and she was replaced in the video by a tall, gorgeous model named Dana Patrick.  As was the case with Karla Devito, many assumed that the singer and the model were the same person and Patrick was inundated with record offers, all of which she turned down owing to the fact that she couldn’t sing a note (which, admittedly, hasn’t stopped many others who have found themselves in similar situations).  Though her appearance in the clip is one of the most striking in the medium (surely ranking with Tawny Kitaen’s Whitesnake cavortings as the most memorable appearance of a non-performing redhead in a music video), Patrick chose not to follow up on it and—apart from bit parts in episodes of Seinfeld and G Vs. E —faded from the spotlight.

Also worthy of note is the music video for the album’s less-celebrated follow-up single, Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through, which does not feature a relevant Meat Loaf Backup Singer archetype, but does include an early appearance from a young actress then best known for being Jon Voigt’s startlingly hot daughter.  Had she been required to lip synch to another singer’s vocals, it would be safe to say that Angelina Jolie would have eclipsed both Devito and Patrick as the most significant of the Meat Loaf pseudo-singers, but since her role in the video is strictly visual, she serves instead as nothing more than a worthwhile footnote.

Here now we at last come to the woman who best exemplified all of the qualities of a perfect and whole Meat Loaf Backup Singer.  Joining him on the stage tour justified by Bat Out of Hell II’s surprise success was a woman who combined all of the best attributes of her predecessors.  Like Foley, Cher and Crosby she possessed a powerful singing voice capable of matching Loaf’s uniquely dramatic tones and like Devito, Cher and Patrick she was an enormously attractive woman whose innate sex appeal was apparent before she even sang a word.

This was never more evident than when she appeared with Loaf on a taping of The Late Show with David Letterman.  Coming back from the commercial break that followed their performance, the host quipped “You know what this show needs, Paul?  A backup singer.”
More than any other performer, Patti Russo is the true embodiment of the perfect Meat Loaf Backup Singer.  And for 13 years—from 1993 to 2006—she served in that capacity, until she abdicated her birthright to a younger performer named Aspen Miller, whose previous performing experience had mostly been as a cartoon and video game voice over artist.  Though the petite Miller was a beauty and possessed the obligatory pipes, her youth proved to be an unexpected stumbling block.  While Russo was close enough to Loaf’s age to be seen as his contemporary, Miller looked and sounded much more like a friend of his daughter (who also frequently performed with her father as a non-featured backup artist), which added a layer of hitherto unapparent creepiness to Paradise By the Dashboard Light.  Thus Miller failed to overcome the shadow of her predecessor and Loaf wisely decided to re-invite Russo to join him this year for the remainder of his world tour.

While some may wonder if being the perfect Meat Loaf Backup Singer is more of a curse than an honor, I am not so cynical.  In a world where so many people are forced to come to grips with their own mediocrity, it's comforting to know that out there are people like Patti who truly are better at what they were born to do than any other person in the world.  Even if the hope this provides is a false hope, it is still better than no hope at all.