4. Linda Ronstadt, Living in the USA
In 1978, Linda Ronstadt was about as big as a rock ‘n’ roll performer could get, though most of the superlatives that got flung around centered on her gender. After a slightly belated breakthrough with her fifth studio album, Heart Like a Wheel, Ronstadt started stacking up accomplishments. She became the first solo female to have three straight million-selling albums when her 1976 release Hasten Down the Wind crossed that tally (she eventually could claim nine straight Platinum-certified albums). The 1977 album Simple Dreams spent five weeks atop the Billboard album chart, holding the distinction of knocking Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours from the perch, ending its record-setting four month run there. (Well, ending isn’t entirely right since Rumours was back in the #1 position a couple months later.) Simple Dreams reportedly sold over three-and-a-half million copies in the span of less than a year. Again, that was a record for a female artist. It was that enormous hit record that Ronstadt was officially following up with Living in the USA, released almost exactly one year later, in September of 1978. Continuing her string of notable accomplishments, it was the first album to ever ship Double Platinum, some two million copies pressed and sent out before even a single disc had been sold.
Living in the USA took its title from a recurring lyric in Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.,” which Ronstadt covered for the album’s opening track and lead single. While a Top 40 hit, her ninth since her career started blazing with the chart-topping “You’re No Good,” the track exposes the chief creative shortcoming of Ronstadt’s album. Ronstadt was first and foremost a skilled interpreter of other people’s songs, essentially an ace covers act. There’s no shame in that. Many of his hits may have been penned just for him, but the same can be said of Elvis Presley (who, incidentally, Ronstadt knocked out of the top spot on the country albums chart with Living in the U.S.A., an especially impressive feat given that it happened just a few months after the King’s death, when instant nostalgia was giving him a mighty commercial boost). The problem was that Ronstadt’s tepid take on Berry’s rocker suggested she was running low on inspiration, possibly a result of releasing new music as a very steady clip to meet the huge demand of her swelling fan base.
Ronstadt is at her best when a song seems to surprise her a little bit, pulling out different dynamics in her melodic, emotive vocals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is more likely to occur on Living in the USA with the more unfamiliar songs, such as “All That You Dream,” which is smooth but propulsive, effectively showcasing Ronstadt’s voice as she goes from a gently keening croon down to the occasional growl. Then there’s Warren Zevon’s offering to the record, almost a given at this point in Ronstadt’s discography thanks to her sterling turns with his songwriting previously. “Mohammed’s Radio” demonstrates exactly why Ronstadt was the ideal singer of Zevon’s songs, even better than the man himself. His cynicism brings out her innate, often untapped toughness, and her velvety voice reveals the loveliness of his melodies and verbal phrasings, often concealed by his default croaky, languid delivery. (And man alive, does “Midnight Radio,” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, ever owe something to this particular track.) It’s performances like these that prove there was real artistry to what Ronstadt was doing.
Ronstadt made it to the cover of Time magazine the previous year, accompanied by the descriptor “Torchy Rock.” That assessment is spot-on, for good and ill. Ronstadt would eventually give in to that instinct altogether, but at the height of her popularity she was still trying to bridge all the different audiences that were snatching up her music, sometimes resulting in material that was tragically bloodless. That quality is exemplified by her take on Elvis Costello’s “Alison,” released by him only one year earlier. She takes a song full of emotional danger and wounded romanticism and turns it into something utterly vanilla. The best that can be said is that it’s pretty in an unassuming way. If Talking Heads, Blondie, and their kindred spirits were inventing new wave, Ronstadt was doing the same for adult contemporary. Costello hated her version of the song and didn’t mind telling anyone who’d listen (because he’s Elvis Costello and he’s always happen to vent his most vicious opinions). He liked the money all those record sales brought him, though. When Ronstadt’s management asked him for songs he thought might be better suited to Ronstadt, he sent along a batch, three of which made it onto her next album. He hated those, too. But I’ll bet he liked the size of the checks once again.
Ronstadt just kept selling records. It’s easy to look back at her career now and scoff. The hits that endure sound like pure filler, desperately dated in their laid back seventies cheer. Digging deeper doesn’t necessarily yield material that’s revelatory, but it does start to showcase someone who was often damn good at what she was trying to do. She was a powerful singer not because of her ability to hit big, brassy notes, but because of the way she could inhabit a song. She was popular for a reason, and that reason is best named with a single word: talent. That shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time
–6: Bursting Out
–5: Dog & Butterfly