Look what they’ve done to her song, ma: they’ve made her a
During the early 1970s, the underground press misunderstood Melanie,
but above ground, her fans and future generations did not.
Brought up in New Jersey with the full, non-mainstream name of
Melanie Safka, she wrote and performed her own songs. This in itself
was a new phenomenon in pop music, but that she was a woman wowed
the masses even further. In 1970, females were supposed to buy the
records, not create them. And what’s with the hippie clothes,
Her hits were quirky but catchy: “Brand New Key,” “Look What They’ve
Done To My Song, Ma” and “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” topped pop
charts, but record execs and critics were scratching their heads.
The flower child was hard to peg (and market). Was she singing for
the kids? Or for all-time (history has only begun to answer this,
siding with our gal).
Emanating out of that little-white-girl body came a hell of a voice,
but a long-time string of hits was not to be. Still, she continued
her pioneering ways by starting her own label (Neighborhood
Records), and quietly left her mark as a player in an era that’s
often hard to describe or understand.
She spent her non-hit years raising a family and working for charity
(including UNICEF). Miley Cyrus’ recent remake of the
Edith-Piaf-like “Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma” has caused
heads to turn back to the source of such brilliant songwriting.
Now, she’s touring and reconnecting with fans, old and new. Here,
she graces us with a PopEntertainment.com interview.
We love you to
death, but the press not so much. Why?
was unfairly attacked by the very papers that I thought would be
simpatico with me, that they would understand my message and get it.
I didn’t ever see myself as a mainstream type. I always thought of
myself as ugly and peculiar looking. It was kind of an unbelievable
shock to me that I had hit records. There was this thing going on
that if you had a hit, you were highly suspect.
Were you maybe
just a victim of your time? Or simply ahead of your time?
magazine seemed to run an attack on me. I think it had a lot to do
with me being on Buddah Records/Legacy Recordings, which before me was known as a
bubblegum label. But then [the label] found Captain Beefheart and
they were expanding their horizons. I guess I got caught in the
The review of “(Lay Down) Candles in the Rain” in Rolling Stone
magazine was a damnation of any ability that I had. They didn’t
mention that I wrote the song. And then they said that my voice was
like a pencil scratch across the record. But when I listen to that
song, I think, ‘My God, that voice! That’s a powerful little white
girl in front of all those black gospel singers.’ I was really
holding my own there. There was no mention at all that this was
pretty revolutionary, a white girl singing with an all-black choir.
In the South, that was still pretty risky.
What did they
not appreciate about your music?
So many songs back then sounded “so Sixties” or “so Eighties.” But
all of my songs just stand alone as musical tidbits.
Was “Brand New
Key” meant to be tinged with sexual innuendo?
It’s unbelievable to me that I didn’t notice the sexual innuendo.
When I look back on it now, I think, ‘how could I not notice that?’
I was one of those girls in school who if someone made an off-color
joke, and I would be going, ‘what?’ My head was in such a different
place that I just didn’t zero in on that. Maybe my
was on a 27-day fast. I was a vegetarian before that. I went to this
guru who put me on a cleansing fast. I was 27 days on nothing but
water. About two weeks later, I went to a flea market in
Englishtown, NJ, and on the way back, I passed a McDonald’s, and the
aroma! I had the biggest craving! I went in and had the works, and
no sooner had I finished my last bite of the hamburger that I had
that song in my head.
don’t know if it was that aroma, but whatever it was, it threw me
back into that era of learning how to roller skate and learning how
to ride a bike. I was under the sensation of putting all that
shocking stuff into my body all at once after cleansing for that
long. Whatever it was, that song came out.
considered a hippie? How were you defined back then?
They called me a flower child. There weren’t many women [performing]
at that time. This was before Joni Mitchell. There was no Carole
King yet, as a writer. Back then, writers were confined to the back
rooms. They weren’t able to wow audiences. [Performers] were more of
a manufactured thing. They couldn’t avoid me because I was so
there, but they would put me in the same article as, say, Bobby
Sherman. If you want to make somebody look bad, it’s not that
difficult. I had a career in spite of it.
Who was your
Believe it or not, my audience was the younger sisters and brothers
of the people of my generation. They heard the music and they
didn’t see the negative slant. They didn’t know that there was a
whole “Melanie’s not cool” campaign going on. Over the years, I’ve
become fascinated with the role of PR in everything, in politics,
art. History is told by the winners. It’s often difficult to find
truth in the telling of things.
“Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma” is a
heart-wrenching song about art being misunderstood.
Lashing out at the industry, and the [public relations] machine. The
whole point for me is to live an authentic life. To be real and to
be true to who I am. And I was so misinterpreted and mislabeled. It
was very frustrating. The girl in the song is trying to be who she
is. You become a reactionary to yourself. I [was branded with] this
image of this sweet, innocent little person, and I didn’t want
people to think that. You become a reactionary against the way
people think you are.
take on pop music today?
In general, it’s pretty horrible. And I’m not saying there aren’t
good people out there, but often the people doing the good stuff do
not come out in the mainstream. When you can no longer control what
you have to sell, that becomes dangerous in business. The industry
itself is one great big clearinghouse called Clear Channel. They
make sure that nothing is on there that they don’t want on there.
You don’t need book burning anymore. It’s all carefully controlled.
Sorry to hear
that you’ve had some health problems and horrible loss within the
last few years.
had a heart attack; a violent heart attack and I didn’t know I was
having it. That was a couple of years ago. I fell and I dislocated
my shoulder, and from that, I had pains in my chest. My husband had
passed away, so I wouldn’t have known if I was having a heart attack
or not. I was not paying attention to anything. It was all grief and
How are you
feeling these days, now that you are getting back on stage?
am a miracle magnet. I am a magnet for miracles.
A COUPLE OF VINTAGE PERFORMANCES OF MELANIE'S GREATEST HITS, "BRAND NEW KEY" AND
"LOOK WHAT THEY'VE DONE TO MY SONG, MA"!
us Let us know what you