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Raise the Rufus

Strike a pose: Songwriter Rufus Wainwright's smartly emotional music is in vogue.

"Why do so many teenage girls love Rufus Wainwright?"

This important query is posed by Adrienne, a young woman whose essay appears on "Our Matinee Idol," a charming Web page at members. tripod.com/~rufuswainwright -- and she comes up with more than her fair share of answers to it. Although she acknowledges that "every girl has her reason for loving the man in the floral shirt!" Adrienne points to "the amazing voice, the brilliant piano playing! The honest songs that seem to come together so well!" Granted, Wainwright also happens to be an attractive hunk of man meat, but the fact that he's openly gay serves to inoculate Adrienne and the rest of the Rufus Sisterhood's junior branch against the charge that their adoration only runs skin deep. "Put it this way," she writes. "Who can accuse us of being teen-boppers when we're sitting in the front row of a Rufus Wainwright concert? We know, he knows, the whole world knows that he'd be more interested in our BROTHERS than he is us!"

Some performers might react condescendingly to such observations, but not Wainwright, an effervescent personality a few years shy of thirty. Despite the raves he's received for his first two albums for DreamWorks Records (1998's bright, intriguing Rufus Wainwright and this year's first-rate Poses), he seems genuinely flattered by Adrienne's thesis and eagerly springs to the defense of the demographic she represents.

"Honestly, that generation of young girls, especially, has been really brutalized in terms of what's offered them and what's presented to them musically," he says, his words rushing out in mad, enthusiastic bursts. "I'm not saying I'm better than any group or band or this or that. But I just feel that a lot of times, girls' intelligence is really insulted by what people are trying to sell them, and there's bound to be a fallout. And that's what I'm going for." He laughs before adding, "I'm not saying all of them will come to me, but I do think a lot of people think all young girls do is go out and buy merchandise and scream for any cute boy. And I think that's a falsity. They're yearning for knowledge and to hear interesting things, and that should be available to them."

Still, he doesn't want to be exclusively typecast as the alternative to O-Town. "I have that niche, sure, but I have a couple of other niches, too. My music is for anyone who's a little bit disgruntled with life in general and needs a break. My main focus -- and this is due to my love of opera and certain other things -- has a lot to do with escapism and with forgetting about the daily world and other things, and just going into some other planet, you know? And I think a lot of people relate to that these days."

Wainwright certainly does. A native Canadian, he currently lives in New York City and was in uptown Manhattan on September 11 when the World Trade Center, located on the lower half of the island, came tumbling down. In the attack's aftermath, he was filled with a desire to help the thousands of victims; fortunately, an opportunity to lend a hand presented itself almost immediately. He had already committed to appear as part of Come Together, a tribute to the music of John Lennon organized by Yoko Ono, Lennon's widow, and John's son Sean Lennon, with whom Wainwright has been friends since they toured together in the mid-'90s; Sean opened for Rufus in Canada, with the bill's order reversed in the U.S. The show was subsequently reconceived as a WTC-relief fundraiser and broadcast to a national cable audience that undoubtedly found a new poignancy in "Across the Universe," the Lennon-McCartney number performed by Wainwright, Lennon and another celebrity guest, Moby -- particularly the line, "Nothing's gonna change my world."

These words carried with them a sense of discovery for Wainwright; he's young enough to have been unfamiliar with the ditty before Sean suggested they sing it together. But he's certainly well versed about at least a couple of the senior Lennon's contemporaries. Rufus is the son of recent Westword profile subject Loudon Wainwright III ("Family Values," October 18) and Kate McGarrigle, half of the folk-music duo Kate & Anna McGarrigle. Kate spoke to Westword about Rufus shortly after he signed with DreamWorks ("Sister Act," February 27, 1997), noting that she never tried to dissuade him from becoming a musician because "it wouldn't have done any good. He started doing these sorts of creative things when he was two. My favorite anecdote about him goes back to when he applied to go to a music camp, and after he gave me his application, I noticed that he put down his height as 'five feet twelve.' And I thought, 'Should I correct this or just let it go?' But he just doesn't think about those things. He's so totally focused on what he's doing artistically that I don't think he knew there were twelve months in a year until he was 22. But that's one of the reasons I love him."

This steadiness of purpose helped Wainwright garner a loyal, cult-sized audience in Canada, where he was raised by Kate after she and Loudon divorced, and by the time he was in his early twenties, he'd attracted two influential patrons: Lenny Waronker, head of the DreamWorks imprint, who signed the McGarrigles to their first big contract during the '70s, and iconoclastic singer-songwriter/producer Van Dyke Parks. The speed with which Rufus was embraced by these heavy hitters smacked of old-school nepotism, but precious few leveled this accusation at him in the wake of his DreamWorks bow. Rufus Wainwright was clearly the work of a major new talent: smart, witty, articulate, and sporting a musical depth and breadth that harked back to popular composers associated with the golden age of Broadway. So rich was his gift for structurally complex, lyrically clever, swooningly tender airs such as "Foolish Love," "Barcelona," "Beauty Mark" and an original cunningly dubbed "Danny Boy" that he seemed to hail from another era. But Wainwright's glad to have arrived during this one.

"I think I was born at the right time, because right now, being musical is what's needed," he maintains. "God knows what it was like back in the '20s and '30s, but if everyone had to play the piano and learn how to read music or know how to play five instruments, I'd probably be seen as really low-grade. I'm so lazy, I'd probably be considered kind of a dilettante -- whereas today, the standards are considerably lower, and George Gershwin and Cole Porter aren't next door. If they were, I'd have to have them knocked off."

More seriously, he says, "For me, lyrics are the hardest part of writing songs. Music itself, it usually falls within a natural order of things melodically. It's just what sounds good to your ear, and you can only do so much with it before your ear gets tired of listening -- at least that's how mine works. But with lyrics, you really have to create a whole entity, a whole city, a whole world of its own. So that's definitely the most difficult part of songwriting for me -- and the most rewarding, in a lot of ways. To come up with a good lyric, a good idea that's tangible, almost physical -- that's a really great feeling."

On his first album, Wainwright accomplished this mission frequently, which helped account for the disc's respectable sales and a raft of accolades from the likes of Rolling Stone, which named him 1998's best new artist. But when it came time to put together a followup, Wainwright was dead-set against repeating himself. "I love my first record, and I'm proud of it. But after it was done, it was imperative for me that the next album not wallow in an I'm-tremendously-brilliant, look-how-many-instruments-are-on my-songs, look-how-many-runs-on-the- xylophone-I-can-perform kind of thing. To me, it was necessary to streamline the songs and the production and just get to the core of everything. So I wanted to be as sincere as possible and at the same time try to relate to other people's ears -- to what other people might want to hear and to what other producers might be able to do."

Poses isn't a complete departure for Wainwright. The principal producer is Pierre Marchand, who was behind the mixing board for "In My Arms" on his debut, and even the more straightforward compositions eschew simplemindedness. Witness "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," a rueful catalogue of cravings ("Everything it seems I like's a little bit stronger, a little bit thicker, a little bit harmful for me") with a Kurt Weill edge, and the title cut, a dizzyingly intricate investigation of voguing in everyday life that's swaddled in background vocals and strings. But he allows a Beach Boys sensibility to infuse his off-kilter salute to "California" and croons over subtle electronics throughout "Shadows," produced by Alex Gifford of the Propellerheads.

On the surface, teaming with Gifford seems like an attempt to get more in tune with radio, and Wainwright says he "wouldn't deny there was some of that sentiment at the beginning." But, he adds, "Once you get in the studio and you're trying to finish a fucking track, all that crap goes out the window. If management and record companies and so forth try to get me on the radio, I appreciate the effort, and I think it would be amazing if it worked out. But frankly, I don't think it's going to be what I'm about.

"I used to watch MTV or VH1 because I'd think, 'I don't know anything about pop music. I've got to learn about this,'" he goes on. "But recently, I've been like, 'I don't really care about this very much, and I've got to stop forcing myself to.' Because I know what I like, I know what I want to do, and I've just got to continue doing it. That's not to say anything bad about pop or to criticize it. It's just not where I come from, and I've got to be fine with that. I am fine with that, and I think other people are fine with it, too. I think a lot of them would be sad if all of a sudden I was riding on a big bus with Puff Daddy."

To learn how to master this balancing act, Wainwright need only look to his parents. Neither his father nor his mother has achieved massive success, but they've spent their entire adult lives as performers and are still getting work in youth-oriented mediums: Kate, along with Anna, provided vocals for the latest Nick Cave album, No More Shall We Part, and Loudon is a regular cast member on the Fox TV series Undeclared. "They've had the perfect careers, in my opinion," Rufus allows. "They've raised kids and had nice homes and been able to make the kind of records they wanted to make and have the kind of schedule they desire. To me, that's just as good as being Prince or John Lennon. If I could have a career like that, I'd be lucky. I'd feel blessed."

Meanwhile, he plans to go his own way, promoting a romantic worldview in an unromantic time. "I think once the stakes are raised around us, the way they are now, those little crushes and those little sort of notions we all have become very valuable -- and probably more intense -- due to the situations they happen in," he says.

He's right, of course -- and such ingredients have combined during previous times of turmoil to produce some of America's most enduring cultural touchstones. For instance, the relationship between Rick and Ilsa in 1942's Casablanca throws the sparks it does in part because their situation is literally a matter of life and death, as those who saw the film in the midst of World War II understood full well. Wainwright doesn't know if equally memorable works will emerge from the war on terrorism, but he'll be taking his best shot.

"If anything, my goal is to make music, mainstream music, that brings things back to a search for beauty or, in a weird way, the divine," he says. "That's something I could be doing alone in my room until the cows come home. But instead of it just being my own little thing, I think it's important for me and other artists to get out there and really try to make this a better world."

The teenage girls of America should be eternally grateful.