Remembrance: The Slink, Sass & Spirit Of Denise Matthews aka Vanity


Some sad news: Denise Matthews aka Vanity passed away yesterday. She was 57.

Vanity has always been an interesting figure in music to me because she is proof of how sometimes the overt hyper-sexualized image that is often attached and even expected of a pop star isn't as rah-rah feminist or empowering as it appears. Often times such a look, such an act can be misconstrued, gleaming exploitative and even sometimes damaging to the individual. As much as the soft core imagery of Vanity's 1980s hey-day has a carefree burlesque feel to it with a kinky n' funky soundtrack to match, I still can't forget that being Vanity almost killed Denise Matthews. That as fun and indulgent as it all looked, there was still a hint of  Matthews not being in total control of who she really was.

Luckily, the Canadian-born singer, model, and actress was able to save herself as after a near-death drug overdose in the mid-1990s she denounced her slinky stage image and became a born-again Christian, later on dedicating her life to her faith, repenting her inebriated past and exposing the ugly side of fame via her preachings and her 2004 memoir, Blame It On Vanity (which is weirdly over-priced on Amazon...). I may not be seen sitting in the front pews every Sunday morning, but I do understand divine intervention and its power, and Matthews cleansing and purging herself of all things Vanity is an empowering act in itself, and great admiration I have for her for knowing when it was time to save herself in order to live life with purpose and with supreme devotion to God.

Beginning her secular career as a model, Matthews became the front-woman of the short-lived funk-R&B group, Vanity 6 in the early 1980s. The act was assembled by Prince who had formed the group as a way for him to flex his long-harbored idea of mentoring a girl group, as well as to bolster Matthews (whom he had personally christened "Vanity") as his protégé and female "mirror image". Still as indulgent as the group was for Prince their 1982 self-titled debut is a pure classic for its curious excursions into soul-tinged New Wave and its pearl clutching sexually-charged lyricals.

Though the group --- which also featured members Brenda Bennett and Susan Moonsie --- were merely there for eye candy and were not really 'singers' or 'songwriters', there were a lot of firsts going on with them, as they were (quiet as its kept) pre-Madonna, erotically titillating and rocking lacy camisoles and garter belts long before the Material Girl even flounced around in such guises. Also Prince's penchant for sexual innuendos that teetered on scandalous obscenity was given a female face, as the group's biggest hit, the marvelous "Nasty Girl" was filled with such saucy imagery and dirty, filthy basslines that a lot of blushing (and conservative censorship) was in order. However you want to slice it, "Nasty Girl" was some undeniable fun funk cheesecake, a little silly, but still a classic exercise in attitude and sex appeal.


As sexy as they were there's also a lot of playfulness and comedic touches in Vanity 6's steeze, I particularly like the snotty behavior exuded on "Make-Up", the sparse funk and insult riddled, "If A Girl Answers (Don't Hang Up)", and the Valley Girl pithiness of the group's debut single, "He's So Dull". I know Prince was behind all of what Vanity 6 was, but it's really the girls, and of course Matthews who have to (*in my Tim Gunn voice*) make it work, and boy, do they...


Looking back, Vanity's image is actually quite tame in comparison to the pop stars who roam around today's music wilderness, but Vanity didn't exactly step out of a nunnery as clad in leather and lace, she played up the image Prince saddled her with when she left the group to forge a solo career, emerging in 1984 with her debut solo album, Wild Animal. What's notorious about the album is its first single, the glorious and oh so absurd camp ode to the 'gushing juices' of carnal delight, "Pretty Mess". The video (which is cruelly not available) is even more of a mess, thanks to it embodying the tackier side of 1980s attire and its wealth of highly-suggestive visual metaphors (a popping champagne bottle, lots of round, white pillows, you get the picutre...) --- well, her stage name is Vanity and not Modesty after all...

I plan to elaborate more on Vanity's second and final album, 1986's Skin On Skin, during my round-up of anniversary favorites later on this year, but as a small adduce, Skin On Skin is Vanity at her slinky and saucy best as the album featured a great collection of playful synth funk that was consistent as it was an original step away from Prince's sound canon. "Under The Influence" was the big single from it, and its a great underrated funk-pop bop that I wish more people knew about.


Vanity's output later on was scattered at best, with loose cannon tracks popping up here and there, most of them pulled from soundtracks of films that she starred in such as "7th Heaven" from 1985's The Last Dragon and the Jesse Johnson-produced, "Undress" from 1988's Action Jackson.


'80s babies and throwback horror fans might remember a great television show called Friday The 13th: The Series. The show had absolutely nothing to do with Jason Voorhees or slashing up teens in summer camp cabins, and it was better for it as it was much spookier and more Gothic in its tone, as it followed antique dealers who were gathering up cursed objects. Vanity guest-starred in one of my favorite episodes from the second season, "Mesmer's Bauble", and in it she plays a popular singer (because why not stay consistent?) who garners the sinister attentions of an obsessed fan.

The episode is insane gaudy fun, but it's a shame that every time I watch re-runs of the show on Chiller TV, that particular episode is never shown (my guess is that it got eradicated during Matthews' Vanity purge?) Still, it's a real shame that that episode is lost in TV oblivion considering Vanity covered a lovely version of Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" specifically for the episode, and the way she sings the track leads one to wonder where Vanity could've taken her music career at that point as her singing voice began to mature, with her putting some distance between the fantasy and reality of what the Vanity persona contained.

Still, Matthews was more than Vanity, and in my heart she'll always be remembered for what she contributed musically, as well as what she accomplished spiritually.

May she rest in peace.
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