Like Frank Sinatra, Cat Power, and a number of beauty pageant contestants before and after her, Jessica Simpson is a covers artist.
In the states, Simpson has seven gold singles to her name since cresting on a blonde wave of virginal jailbait late last century. Three of those hits are from that era, one of them is her post-divorce anthem, and three of them were released during the height of Newlyweds‘ popularity. Two of the three songs in the final category are covers, in addition to a few more that didn’t chart. I’d cast a more critical eye toward two of her singles sampling pop standards–”I Think That I’m In Love With You” borrows the hook to John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane,” “A Public Affair” is built around Madonna’s “Holiday” and Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”–but hip hop has so revolutionized pop music that it seems unfair to call Simpson out for something Rihanna has done too. Though “SOS” and “Please Don’t Stop the Music” are masterful pop songs, in part because of how inventively they repurpose Soft Cell’s cover of “Tainted Love” and Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”. Simpson’s hits rely upon our familiarity with the sample–a Diddy hat trick–but never transcend the source material.
Upon her entree into pop stardom, Simpson was cast as a paler shade of Britney. Spears was the pop star, Christina Aguilera was the diva, Mandy Moore was the first one to go brunette, and Jessica was the one who actually obeyed the record label’s directive and married someone in a boy band. It’s terrifying how much these roles mean to us.
The callous dismissal of Simpson’s musical talent stung in part because she was almost cast opposite Spears and Christina Aguilera in the early 90s reboot of The Mickey Mouse Club. The legend is that Simpson was intimidated by the prospect of following up Aguilera in a singing audition and choked. I also think marketing four blonde teenage pop stars to the TRL crowd further suggests the music industry’s arrogance and disregard for people. “Maybe the Britneybot’s synapses will misfire after we ply it with diet pills. Good to have a backup.” Packaging young women as disposable commodities is sexist, even before we factor in their uniform physical attributes. But their male counterparts didn’t fare much better. Being cast as an archetype (the bad boy! the funny one!) in one of many interchangeable vocal groups is pretty dehumanizing too. Ask Du Jour.
The cultural rationalization that Simpson is good enough has hurt her career irrevocably, perhaps because she was trying so hard to live up to some ideal that, like Judith Butler and Kartina Richardson suggest, is a copy of an original that doesn’t exist. It was the cancer that infected her relationship with John Mayer too (actually, John Mayer is the cancer that infects all of his relationships). It impacted her voice, which lacked any distinct character. It functioned instead as an index of shouty melismas, breathy coos, and feigned erotic sighs that became hallmarks of contemporary pop vocal performance. Simpson didn’t sound like anyone in particular except maybe that girl you knew in high school who sang Mariah Carey’s “Hero” at the talent show. But I never remembered her voice or how I felt when I heard her sing so much as recognized when the moment had passed. Often, her voice sounded like the pop equivalent of a fake orgasm.
So it’s interesting to me that where her career actually took off was in retail, which is all about recycling and mass reproduction. The prospect of dressing like (or smelling like) Jessica Simpson holds little appeal to me. With rare exception, celebrity personal style is a myth. She’s famous, which means she has an army of stylists. Of course, part of my response is based on is cast as Simpson’s inspiration. Her look is pure Farrah and–like Rachel Bilson–I’m a Jacqueline Smith kind of girl. But she’s made a fortune getting multiple generations of women–my mother, your college roommate–to buy her pumps. And she really seems to like her own clothes, to the point where she parlayed her success in retail into a gig judging Fashion Star. She also seems to like the body wearing them. So I’m interested in how, following that time she wore unflattering jeans for a concert and everyone decided she was fat, Simpson has embraced a new shape. She didn’t give up sugar. She didn’t crash diet. She didn’t will herself into her seventeen- or twenty-five-year old body.
Simpson also gave birth to her daughter last month. I don’t intend to scrutinize her post-pregnancy body, as no one should have the right to sanction what kinds of bodies are permissible and aberrant in a society. I also don’t intend for this post to blindly celebrate Simpson’s curvier figure or–by omission–throw shade at female celebrities who’ve slimmed down. Simpson’s not radical. She’s a rich celebrity who shifted an unremarkable singing career into an opportunity to put her name on some handbags. But she seems happy and I hope she’s content and can figure out how to help her daughter acquire peace of mind (Will and Jada have some pointers). If in fact we’re all copies of some ideal we can only perceive and never reach, we may as well enjoy who we are and who we’ll become.
Recently, I cut off all my hair again. Mainly, I cut it as a queer fan gesture. It takes after a mentor’s decision to buy an army jacket after John Bender ignited her libido during a screening of The Breakfast Club. She wanted to become him as much as be with him. I can relate.
I was taken with Jana Hunter’s stage presence during the Lower Dens show I caught at SXSW. She insinuated herself into the proceedings–the outdoor venue, the all-male backing band, the armada of cool hunters–with unassuming grace. I’d imagine being that skilled as a guitar player means you don’t have to show off. My hunch is that her haircut gave her some confidence too. Her light brown hair was shaved short on the sides and tousled at the crown, with bangs draping over the right side of her forehead. This was something of a pleasant surprise, as many of the photos I’d seen of her featured her with longer hair, sometimes dyed blonde. She totally turned me on. What especially caught my attention was how much she isn’t a normative female front woman. She is a leader and featured musician in her band. But she isn’t especially performative onstage which, coupled with her sunglasses and cavernous voice, leant mystery. She is androgynous, self-possessed, and seemingly in ownership of a secret. Hot.
It helps that Twin Hand Movement was one of the sexiest records of last year. This is high praise, as I tend to shy away from rock when in search of mood music. Before and after My Bloody Valentine, a lot of rock bands use walls of guitar distortion and slippery boy-girl harmonies as shorthand for fucking, which is fine. I’m not denying that “Moon” and “Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)” don’t make me want to get someone pregnant. But what sets Movement apart is how it evokes the panoramic scope of long-distance driving. Lower Dens create music vast enough for the listener to get lost in various kinds of contemplation. It is both the road and the randy car ride.
So the assured woman with the dexterous fingers and the close crop is responsible for music that makes me feel this way? Oof. Get out the electric razor.
I should mention that though I like playing with clothes and signifiers, I don’t invest much in a beauty regimen. I respect that there is a developing industry for organic and/or vegan beauty products and am glad other friends are helping it along. I just have no interest in buying into it. I don’t like playing with my hair. So any haircut of mine has to work without a blow dryer, gel, or hairspray. I hate applying cosmetics to my face and feeling them on my skin in equal measure, which means that No Makeup Day carried on for me like any other. This probably informs how I organize my wardrobe, which is largely assembled from friends’ hand-me-downs, thrifted items, and pieces I’ve had since high school. The less waste I’m responsible for, the happier I am.
I’ll refrain from turning this post into that essay on space I had to write for a graduate theory course (no citations from that wife strangler Althusser). However, I’ll note that I got my $25 cut at the Bird’s by my house and that the mix playing during my appointment coincided too damn neatly with my intent and hipster positioning. Playing Ladytron is one thing. The Blow’s “How Naked Are We Going to Get” elicits a raised eyebrow. But “Beautiful Boyz”–CocoRosie’s duet with Antony about Jean Genet and other “critical queers”–came on, I briefly wondered if the universe knew I was writing a blog post about cutting my hair to express queer feelings about Jana Hunter. The physical proximity to my hairdresser as she was shaving the back of my head created a delightful frisson as well. But since she is a professional, I will keep that reverie to myself.
I cut my hair for a few more reasons. Chief among them was that I wanted to use my hair to reassert my own queer identity. Assuredly, short hair doesn’t make women queer. You can get all Veronica Lake with it and still be queer. But short hair creates visibility. At the very least, it might function as something akin to the “safe space” sticker I’ll have on my office door when I’m a professor. However I can make plain that I’m an ally and fight against homophobia and transphobia, I will. Furthermore, even though I’ve been in a relationship with a man for several years, I don’t identify as straight. Suede’s Brett Anderson once identified himself as a bisexual man who has yet to have a homosexual experience. I lean slightly to the left of that crude definition. Yet I also have trouble using the term “partner.” It seems like an appropriation, however well-intended.
My haircut also upends gendered expectations. Short haired women still bother some people, particularly because long hair is a symbol of conventional white femininity. I learned this when I shaved my head back in 2006. Co-workers behaved quite differently around me after I did it. Following the introductory double takes and furtive glances, there was a formality and rigidity demonstrated by some male peers that hadn’t been there before. It’s clear that I was no longer attractive to some men because of the cut. Some people explicitly bemoaned the loss of my chin-length hair. Others asked if I meant to do it, perhaps wondering if a mischievous wad of gum was the reason I only had half an inch of hair covering my pate. Most people asked if my partner liked it, as if that mattered.
I wanted to reassert this queer identity in the wake of some major changes that await me, as well as some upcoming “girly” events. Skirt-a-Thon begins today. It’s a yearly event headed up by Kristen at Dear Black Woman,. I always participate, in part because the rule about not repeating skirts and dresses during the work week cuts down on my laundry. This year, I wanted to challenge the femme-y nature of the proceedings with a spiked, shaved ‘do.
Furthermore, I am attending four weddings this year. I have as little interest in cashing in on heterosexual privilege as I do for throwing a party to celebrate my relationship. Marriage excludes queer brothers and sisters. The systems that organize American health care and insurance unfairly reward married couples and nuclear families. Weddings can prompt rampant, immoral consumerism. Mainstream feminism’s attempts to reclaim marriage seem to speak more to the movement’s embedded class and/or racial privilege than in any vested interest in dismantling the patriarchy. But while I get hella judge-y about marriage, I’m fine with supporting friends who choose to enter into it. However, this means I won’t sport wedding-ready ringlets. It may mean I’ll need to invest in a suit. Faye Dunaway may personify the evils of liberal feminism in Network, but dammit if don’t want every pantsuit in her closet.
So, yes. I cut my hair as much for Jana Hunter as for myself. Some may scoff at my belief that this is a political act, which is fine. However, if you’re looking for a critical queer willing to rally and organize on behalf of LGBTQI rights, I hope the haircut is a tip-off that I’m a receptive audience.
I’m rooting for Christina Hendricks. Mad Men fans know her as Joan Harris Holloway, the office manager at Sterling Cooper Draper Price whose lethal curves distract some dummies–including her noxious husband–from recognizing that she steers the ship. Hendricks is great at mining all the ambivalence of a woman who hasn’t quite updated her notions of female power for the times she’s living in and attempting to negotiate who she is with how she’s perceived.
Like many fellow cast members, including star Jon Hamm, Hendricks has yet to really break out past the show’s phenomenon. She has the additional obstacle of her curvy body. Though it fits within the context of the show in ways that January Jones’ yoga-toned physique does not, it is vexing to many people who can’t fathom a female celebrity who is neither skinny nor fat. She is simultaneously praised for bringing back a plus-size figure she doesn’t have and relegated to hackneyed iterations of old-style Hollywood costuming because many designers can’t wrap their heads around clothing any woman who isn’t a size 2.
While most magazines can’t conceptualize a pictorial with female subjects that don’t involve an open mouth and a heaving bosom, hers channel the pin-up in ways that highlight the “retro” in retrograde.
This is a particularly confusing development, as Hendricks’ character–under the care of costume designer Janie Bryant–is one of the sartorial tastemakers on a show responsible for retailers like Banana Republic to revisit the 1960s. However, as Julia Turner observed in Slate‘s TV Club coverage, Betty Draper and Peggy Olsen evolve their wardrobes over the course of the series while Holloway has yet to update hers. As much as Holloway has perfected a flattering style on an office manager’s budget, I also think this speaks to a lack of stylistic options for curvy women. Mad Men is currently in the middle of 1965. In two years, Twiggy’s stick-thin body will be in vogue and Marilyn’s figure will be archaic. Thirtysomething Holloway won’t be able to wear the minidresses the model helped popularize. I hope she seeks her revenge in the 70s by claiming the wrap dress as her own.
I actually prefer the actress in simpler attire that doesn’t feel the need to announce her hour-glass silhouette. A former goth kid and self-professed jeans-and-a-t-shirt girl, she looks wonderful in clothes that don’t strap her in or relegate her to a bygone era. As a woman whose garments need to be machine washable, I like it when ladies can breathe and eat and spill food in whatever they’re wearing.
So I find it interesting that Hendricks has been in a few music videos that didn’t play up her figure. Such treatment of female subjects is anomalous within a medium that relishes in objectification, much less when the clip features an atomic redhead built like a brick house. Click on the links provided below to watch.
“One Hit Wonder“
So Much for the Afterglow
Directed by McG
“The Ghost Inside“
Directed by Jacob Gentry
If the 90s will be what this decade of popular music revisits, then isn’t it time we pay our respects to Lady Kier and Deee-Lite? They were more than one-hit wonders, ya’ll.
Lady Kier has long been an idol of mine, starting at around the age of 10 when I bought Dewdrops in the Garden on cassette and incorporated it into my bedroom dance party rotation. And judging by my appreciation of all but the last ten minutes of Party Girl, you can imagine how I feel about Nylon‘s recent celebration of the movie’s celebration of 90s New York dance culture and Lady Kier’s influence on its fashion. Prada even anticipated a revival of sorts in its spring 2008 collection when the house featured platforms very reminiscent of John Fluevog, one of Lady Kier’s favorite shoemakers. And as I mentioned earlier, Married to the Mob paid tribute to the diva with this t-shirt.
Now, people in the know are probably thinking “Revival? But Lady Kier never left us.” Which is true. After Deee-Lite broke up in 1996, Kier struck out on her own as an internationally renowned deejay. Her mixes were a cram session staple of mine in college.
Kier also courted legal controversy in 2006 by claiming that Sega plagiarized her likeness for a video game character. She lost the case, but Ulala in Space Channel 5 certainly looks familiar.
She’s also been very much alive in the hearts of the LGBT community, playing various events and aligning herself as an ally. I’m not sure if Kier is aware of sissy bounce, but in my dreams she links up with Big Freedia or Katey Red.
This is very much in keeping with the group’s public support of LGBT rights, safe sex, and AIDS awareness, along with other interests like protecting the environment, racial equality, reproductive choice, and ending animal cruelty.
Thus I think that if Deee-Lite are due for a revival, hopefully we can revisit Infinity Within, the group’s sophomore release that was maligned at the time for being too “political.” Long before I heard Au Pairs and Gang of Four, Deee-Lite (along with The Pet Shop Boys) were one of the first acts that let me know you can dance and be conscious at the same time. This is to say nothing of the fact that I found out about Bootsy Collins — and by extension P-Funk — because of them.
In short, let’s break out the platforms. Perhaps I’ll pay tribute this Halloween by pairing them with a catsuit.
Just wanted to make sure you all heard about the unofficial Lady Gaga dolls created by Veik11, which I saw one friend post on another friend’s Facebook page earlier this morning. If not, Perez Hilton is excited about them. As with all things Gaga, I’m ambivalent. While my overall opinion isn’t too different from how I felt about Mattel’s Ladies of the ’80s collection, I have a few notes particular to Gaga in doll form. Pros and cons time.
1. I like the DIY spirit of Veik11′s dolls and his approach to fandom. Better a Bratz or Barbie doll be turned into Gaga by the owner than stay a Bratz or Barbie doll. I can only hope girls and boys were this creative in turning their gifts into artistic projects.
2. Likewise, better she be outfitted in crazy, homemade versions of Gaga couture than the store-bought glittery pink duds she tends to wear in the box.
3. I like the idea that any doll can be turned into Gaga, regardless of color. In fact, having a black or Latina Gaga might ease some of the blonde white lady racial tension she inherited from Madonna.
1. Even better if a Ken doll be turned into Gaga, don’t you think? I do.
2. Let’s ugly Gaga up a bit more, shall we? Cover her in more blood, dye some of her hair black or purple, and give her a longer nose. In short, make her more grotesque. In doing so, owners might be honoring their burgeoning feminist idol while at the same time challenging the normative constructs of both the doll and the girl in her.
3. Give her a band or something. Maybe bring in a stuffed animal to play kazoo. Maybe have a Groovy Girl on the drums. Let’s just make sure that the diva doesn’t have to stand alone.
4. Barbie doesn’t have to be Gaga. She can be whatever the owner wants her to be, whether it’s a sleeping companion, a boy, a drag queen, the first female President of the United States, an audience for his or her unseen short film, or a discarded figure on the floor.
A little while ago, my friend Alex forwarded me a press release from a rep at Atlantic Records for Charlotte Gainsbourg’s forthcoming album IRM. As a fan, he had wondered if I had considered writing about her, an interest apparently motivated by reading an earlier post I did on Scarlett Johansson. When we saw each other at a mutual friend’s dissertation proposal party, we talked a bit more about it, wherein he basically outlined an entry’s worth of critical inquiry.
1. Like Johansson, Gainsbourg works almost exclusively with men, whether they be film directors like Michel Gondry and Todd Haynes or music producers like Nigel Godrich. Thus, she often occupies something of a muse position for male creative types, perhaps further enforcing masculinist notions of auteurism. Gainsbourg’s previous work with Air and Jarvis Cocker from Pulp and her recent collaborations with Beck on her new album further illustrate the point.
1A. Gainsbourg has occupied this role for some time, as her father is beloved French yé-yé chanteur Serge Gainsbourg, with whom she sang the controversial “Lemon Incest” in 1984 when she was about 13.
1B. Before casting Charlotte as an artistic man’s (or father’s) plaything, I’d point out that her mother British actress-model-artist Jane Birkin, who was pretty liberated in her views on gender, sexuality, and monogamy. However, she may also be cast in something of a muse position. Like her daughter, she’s also worked with Serge and Beck. And like her daughter, who will be representing bestie Nicolas Ghesquière as the spokeswoman for Balenciaga’s new fragrance next February, Birkin inspired numerous fashion trends and clothiers (why yes, she is the namesake for the famous and expensive over-sized Hermès tote.)
Unlike her daughter, Birkin also had a predilection for posing nude on camera, sometimes while in the act of coitus, perhaps with multiple partners. I’ll leave you to Google. I’ll also leave you to speculate if her daughter is relatively modest about her sexuality as a result of having such . . . “open” parents.
2. Thinking about our friend Annie’s post on Rachel McAdams, Gainsbourg is something of a thinking man’s pin-up, a cultural figure already saddled with normative ideals around race, class, gender, and sexuality. Given that she was recently featured with her half-sister Lou Doillon as the archetype for “thin” in Vogue‘s size issue, I’d add body type to the list of norms she represents.
3. Gainsbourg doesn’t sing so much as talk in her songs. She intimates her way through songs in a breathy, sensual monotone, perhaps made more exotic by her British lilt or her occasional dalliances with French.
So, I’ll bring myself into the discussion. I like Gainsbourg but am probably too casual about her work be considered a fan. I’ve listened to 5:55 and IRM a bit, and have seen some of her more recent movies, in which she is often my favorite aspect. While I haven’t seen Antichrist (or any other Lars Von Trier movies) and am nervous about just how wanting it seems to be of a psychoanalytic or auteurist read, her turn as a mother rendered destructive by the death of her son has peaked my curiosity.
In addition, I thought her emotionally mature performance as Clair, Robbie Clark’s long-suffering ex-wife in I’m Not There deserved an Oscar nomination. I also liked her cover of “Just Like a Woman.”
I also liked her quiet, discreet turn as Stéphanie, the protagonist’s disinterested object of affection in Science of Sleep, a movie I otherwise hated. This is perhaps in part because the majority of film-goers at the screening I attended found Gael García Bernal’s Stéphane to be charming, whereas I found him infuriatingly petulant and wanted to smack him with his own disasterology calendar. But I quite liked her. The only parts of her performance that felt disingenuous were when she wears an uncharacteristically skimpy sweater dress to Stéphane’s calendar launch party (which I’m pretty sure was a figment of the protagonist’s puerile imagination) and at the end, when she’s cries about how Stéphane won’t leave her alone. He’s not worth your tears, girl.
Oh, and I enjoy her vocal cameo in Madonna’s “What It Feels Like For a Girl.” Her confrontational monologue about male gender-bending comes from The Cement Garden, a 1993 film adaptation of Ian McEwen’s 1978 novel that was directed by her uncle Andrew Birkin.
But let’s go back to her voice and problematize the idea of whether or not it’s okay for Gainsbourg to talk through her songs. Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan was really critical of 5:55 particularly for this reason, arguing that her vocal style suggests that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I’d counter with two things.
For one, is making such a display of singing really necessary? Phrasing and expressiveness are just as important as vocal range for singers, if not more so to those with more limitations. And isn’t talking through songs how Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Patti Smith developed mythic rock poet status?
For another, um, you could easily make the same argument for any of Gainsbourg’s male collaborators’ work. Something tells me that Jarvis Cocker, Beck, and Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel of Air were probably all influenced by her father’s barely-sung approach to documenting his own erotic misadventures. I only hope they were just as interested working with Charlotte Gainsbourg as they were working with Serge Gainsbourg’s daughter.
That said, it might be easy to overemphasize or project notions of what French sensuality might be onto Gainsbourg and her songs (something her character in I’m Not There bristles at during her first date with her future ex-husband, as well as something Air have gotten a lot of critical mileage on from certain online publications with hipster cache until recently). While her second album was adorned with breathy vocals, acoustic instrumentation, and sumptuous production that may have lent itself well to such an essentialist reading, the lyrics to songs like “The Operation” and “Little Monsters” document both the wonder and terror of bodies and childhood, suggesting what might have drawn Von Trier to cast her in Antichrist. Her new album, which was inspired by working on her latest movie, gives way to more lyrical abstraction, while at the same time emphasizing a harder sound.
In short, Gainsbourg may make male-appointed bedroom music. But that isn’t all that’s going on, if you give a closer listen.
So, did ya’ll know that Taylor Momsen fronts a rock band? I guess that’s why she’s always sneering each time I see her on Go Fug Yourself. All this, and Leighton Meester working toward a pop career too!
Now, I don’t want to seem snide or condescending, especially about a veteran child actress transitioning into adulthood. I don’t want to speculate that her interest in music has developed just as the once-hot teen soap she’s on is starting to cool. Who am I to suggest that the Gossip Girl star’s musical forays aren’t sincere?
Apparently Momsen’s been singing for years and fronts a band called The Pretty Wreckless. While essentially a solo project with some (male) hired-gun musicians, she is the act’s vocalist, costume designer, and primary songwriter. The group has been putting on shows and has recorded a single, “Zombie,” which has a raw sound that suggests Momsen’s listened to a lot of Courtney Love.
Momsen’s done a lot more to suggest she wants to explore music beyond adding another hyphenate, like one-time would-be pop singers Hilary Duff, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Nicole Richie, who at one point was in a band with model Josie Maran called Darling and was supposed to be working on an alternative-influenced solo project that may or may not see the light. Momsen even plays a bit of guitar as well. I’d hazard she’d do more of it if she’d bulk up. Have you seen her twiggy arms? Homegirl needs to eat all kinds of sandwiches.
But I am a still little incredulous, as I am about Momsen’s entire hipster image, which became public just as Jenny Humphreys was becoming the UES’s edgy It Girl on Gossip Girl. There’s something just way too pre-fab about all of it that makes me wonder if there’s any real difference between Momsen wears skinny jeans and when, say, the Jonas Brothers do it (or, as Jonah Weiner points out in an article Kristen sent my way, when Miley Cyrus hires producers who swipe from lesser-known songs for indie cred). After the controversial but transformative presence Rachel Zoe had in reinventing Nicole Richie’s public image, I work under the assumption that all celebrities have stylists and that Momsen’s no exception, even if she herself is interested in fashion. I can’t help but wonder if similar industrial mechanisms are at work for her and her musical aspirations.
Maybe I’m just being snobby about medium and public image. While I have my doubts about Momsen’s musical pursuits, I never questioned when fellow former child actress Jena Malone released a seven-inch with Social Registry back in 2007 and continued on as the lead singer of The Shoe. Assuredly this has much to do with an appreciation of Malone’s experimental sound.
But I’d be lying if I said my enjoyment of Malone’s music wasn’t informed by my pre-established fandom of her turns in indie-friendly fare like Cheaters, Saved, and Donnie Darko. It probably didn’t hurt matters that she has lesbian parents, legally emancipated herself as a minor for financial reasons, and appeared in public with a bald head. In short, her outsider persona matched her acting and musical choices. It seemed, to employ that ickiest of value judgements, “authentic.”
That said, I support Momsen’s right to rock out. But I’ll have to hear and see more before I call myself a fan.