Los Angeles Time Interview
Mysterious Enigma Speaks About 'Sadeness' : Romanian native Michael Cretu mixes Gregorian chants and Euro-dance beats for an international hit.
Gregorian chants on a dance record? A pop defense of the notorious Marquis de Sade, whose late-18th-Century writings explored sexual violence and domination?
That doesn't sound like a formula for success, but that's what has helped make "Sadeness", pop music's mystery hit.
After topping alternative/college rock and dance charts for weeks, the single has broken into the national pop Top 10, with the album - "MCMXC a.D." - also streaking up the charts. The song's video is also in heavy rotation at MTV. All this success duplicates what happened when the album was released last year in Europe, where the single when to No. 1 in 14 countries. The hoopla even led to a run on Gregorian chant records in German stores at Christmas time.
But the curious appeal of the song - Medieval chants set against light Euro-dance beats - is no less intriguing than the shrouded identity of its creator, an entity appropriately called Enigma. Don't look for any clues on the album cover. The only you'll see is that of an ancient monk. As soon as Charisma Records released the single in January, the company started getting inquiries about the record, but all the company would say was that it was the work of a "German producer." But the veil - finally - is being lifted.
"Enigma" is Michael Cretu, a 33-year-old Romanian native who now lives in Spain. This is his first effort as a recording artist, though he has had considerable success in producing records for his wife Sandra (a singer, who goes by just the single name and has had hits in Europe and South America) and records for German pop performer Peter Schilling.
Cretu's solo project is virtually a one-man show, with the chants and other vocals (including some opera excerpts) provided via electronic sampling. Beyond that, even his U.S. record company, Charisma, knows little about him. They don't even have any photos of him to give the press. Why all the mystery? "The reason is that I consider Enigma a project, not an artist," Cretu said by phone from his home on the Spanish Mediterranean island of Ibiza. The producer was reared in Munich, where he attended a classical conservatory before venturing into pop. "It's not important to know who plays the keyboards or who's the producer or whatever," he added. "I wanted the music to speak its own language. That's why I think it's not good to do too much promotion."
What does Charisma - a branch of Virgin Records - think about all his reluctance to help promote the record? "We didn't sit down and say, 'This project is called Enigma, so let's be enigmatic', " said Audrey Strahl, vice president of press and artist development for Charisma. "But we knew that in Europe the project was launched on the strength of the music. Who else combines Gregorian chants with dance pop and French rap? We felt it was so special it could carry itself. The music was strong and the package fit, with the monk on the cover and the Roman numerals. The simplest thing, as well as the most effective, was to launch it the same way here." KROQ-FM music director Lewis Largent said Charisma didn't really need any marketing to sell him on "Sadeness." "All Charisma had to do was show up with the record," he said. "I knew it would be huge because of its track record."
The most unexpected result of the campaign was questions over possible satanist content in the music. The album deals explicitly with the themes of good being balanced by evil, but, for most in the press, there was no thought of satanic implications until Charisma issued a press release denying it. "We were not trying to be sensationalistic," she said. "We really didn't want that (satanist) hook thrown in... Personally I was surprised we had any feedback about that."
Cretu was also surprised about the satanic implications and dismayed that someone might misinterpret his intent and his defense of de Sade. "I put that stuff in 'Sadeness' because he really had a sad life--one third in prison," he said, calling de Sade's writing politically motivated allegory. "What he wrote was revenge against the situation around him. "I wanted the combination of de Sade and the chants to be a paradox, to raise the question about theology and the Church. It's an old problem. The Pope goes to the Third World and says this and that about God and there are hundreds of thousands of people starving. It's a real problem. It has nothing to do with (satanic) darkness."
By Steve Hochman