Earlier this week, I went to Music Monday at the Drafthouse. This week’s offering was David Bowie’s 1973 concert feature, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which shows the legendary conclusion of the artist’s breakout tour which went out with a bang at the Hammersmith Odeon. It was directed by D.A. Pennebaker who Dylanologists (snicker) might revere for shooting Don’t Look Back and synth-pop enthusiasts the world over can credit for capturing Depeche Mode’s 1988 Rose Bowl performance in 101. Stardust is a valueable historical document of the artist, his band (particularly guitarist Mick Ronson), and the last days of glam rock, a subgenre that would capture the imaginations of a generation of boys and girls on both sides of the pond.
While I think Pennebaker and his film crew constructed a few minor but unfortunate heterosexist images here (i.e.: showing teenage female fans in a clear state of religious/sexual ecstacy but not pointing the camera at any of the boys that assuredly were in attendance; downplaying the sexual dynamic between Bowie and Ronson’s on-stage interplay by framing Ronson’s extensive solos as a chance for Bowie to change costumes with the help of several female personnel), it cannot be denied that Bowie is a helluva entertainer and an assured diva candidate.
His interest in cultural provocation and reinvention impacted Madonna, who inducted the purposely absent icon into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. His androgynous look and campy performance style paved the way for like-minded male artists like Prince and Adam Lambert, the latter of whom is apparently too hot for prime time because his orientation has turned queer subtext into text. And finally, his theatrically nasal voice and lyrical wordplay have influenced indie rock singer-songwriters like Dan Bejar of Destroyer to turn odes to girls and books into labrynthine pop.
Oh, and let’s not forget Bowie’s fantastic turn on Extras. I know Andy Millman won’t.
But all of this means nothing, as I’m going to be focusing on Lydia Lunch, a woman who probably has no use for Bowie or any of his accolades. Fitting in a way, as she’d probably have even less use for being called a diva. While I have no problem declaring her one anyway, I’m also pretty sure she’d tell me to fuck off.
For those unfamiliar, Lunch made her mark fronting no wave group Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Like many of that scene (who’d probably even hate to be referred to as such), this band constantly deconstructed what bands were, what songs were, what music was. Nonetheless, they made an upsetting, exciting scrawl.
And Lunch became imfamous for her confrontational vocal and performance style, something she also brings into her art and written work. Lunch doesn’t sing songs, create installations, make paintings, and write essays and poems so much as disembowel salf-fashioned, sometimes hilarious psychodramas about sex, abuse, death, drugs, and the grotesque implications of image construction. And filth. Always filth.
Acerbic and frequently bored, she’s a delightful addition to any music documentary. In fact, she practically saves 2004′s Kill Your Idols, Scott Crary’s otherwise messy attempt to outline the New York downtown scene from the proto-punk offerings of The Velvet Underground and Suicide to the ascendance of then-up-and-coming acts like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars. Here, she tells her version of the unhistoricizable subgenre that is no wave and strongly endorses against band formation and traditional instrumentation, suggesting kids pick up tubas instead of guitars.
Unfortunately, Crary feels the need to frame his subject in such a way that her heaving bosom is in nearly every shot, which contrasts sharply with the interview footage of Swans’ Michael Gira, which is almost entirely comprised of low-angle head shots. To further pronounce the Citizen Kane indebtedness, Gira’s shot in black and white. Lunch’s breasts apparently required color.
That said, I struggle with Lunch in ways akin to how I struggle with Patti Smith.
On the surface, they’re very similar. They’re both northeastern female underground music-art world figures who made their names blurring filth with art with persona. They also got their start working and aligning with men, sometimes causing me to wonder if they find a particular kinship with men over women, if music historians have overemphasized their work with men, or if they want to absence gender from any discussion of their work, except when they’re making the argument themselves.
Of course, Lunch has worked with a number of women, including Exene Cervenka, Kim Gordon, and Annie Sprinkle. And both women occupy interesting cultural positions that challenge gender roles that line up perfectly with divas. While both women actually employ collaborative processes in their work, the heavy lifting of their male instrumental counterparts is often relegated to the background to emphasize their singularity.
Of course, that I’m doing much of the emphasizing along with generations of like-minded commentators should not be ignored. Instead it should be challenged in terms of how we’re perpetuating the idea that women are better suited to the iconographic role of the solo artist and not toward a further understanding of art- and media-making’s inherently collaborative process and what roles women have, or choose not to have, in it.
Of course, both women seem to like being perceived as cults of personality, which tends to be the realm of the solo artist. Many women have followed, and continue to follow, in this path. We need to keep asking why. I’d like to start by offering up this question: could there ever be a collective of divas working together on a musical project?
Perhaps Lunch and Smith’s configuration as solo artists has something to do with their iffy relationships to feminism (the former instead aligning herself with humanism when she feels its necessary to align with any isms; the latter out-right dismissing feminism).
But one thing I respect about Lunch is her stubborn resolve not to be considered a historical figure. Or an artist. Or a musician. Or a poet. Or a writer. Or a woman sometimes and a human almost never. Because to her, the categorization that inevitably comes from creating or complying with the instation of identity markers create limits on people. Thus, she also resists the entire process of canonization. So I know she’d reject the impetus behind this blog’s assessment of the cultural import behind her personae and body of work.
But canonize I will because, as a feminist, I feel like we have to create a space where we value these sorts of contributions from women and girls. We should also contend the complexities of our art and its political implications. Feminism is tricky and slippery, and most exciting to me when it kind of hurts my head. So is the work of valueable, smart women who will wrestle free from any categorization. Even if I think they’re divas. Even if they think the entire construct (or any construct) is bullshit.
Last week was a bit of a whirlwind (literally, a whirl of wind), so I didn’t get a chance to properly eulogize Allison Iraheta, my pick for this season’s American Idol, who I feel had more in her.
So, there’s plenty to be sad about. In my opinion, Allison simply has the best vocals in the competition. But to add to her raw talent, she’s only 17 (something I often forget when I hear her whiskey-throated voice), one of the few girls who’s had a real shot at winning (Jordin Sparks won season six at 16, Paris Bennett was 17 when she placed 5th in season five). Also, in a season as white as this one has been, Allison was one of the few people of color left in the competition (she’s of Salvadorean descent). But I also loved her unpolishedness. She wasn’t slick, was a bit loopy, and a bit of a mumbler. And she’d always roll her eyes at Ryan Seacrest — indeed, I think I would too. Oh, and she wasn’t stick-thin and didn’t slim down like some of the other contestants (Megan Joy, I’m looking at you). I appreciated that.
And the real tragedy is that she lost after killing Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby.” And who was spared, you may ask? Danny fucking Gokey. Ugh, the worst. Apart from the fact that he sounds just like Michael Bolton, he butchered “Dream On,” the blandest song by Aerosmith, the blandest band that still endures for some reason. And if you can get through that last note, you’re made of thicker stuff than I.
I have other problems with Gokey too. If you’re watching the show, doesn’t he seem like the most self-serious, humorless, uncool, egotistical guy to you too? He cannot laugh at himself or take criticism. Seriously, anyone that concerned with having a coordinated designer pair of eyeglasses for each outfit has gotta be a jerk. He was pretty much done for me in auditions, when he seemed to using the recent death of his wife as a means with which to frame himself and set himself apart in the competition. The only joy I’ve ever really derived from his presence on the show is making his song selections be about dead wives. For example, take Motown week, when he did “Get Ready” by The Temptations. Take the opening line “Never met a girl who makes me feel the way that you do” and sub out “you’re all right” with “but you died.” Instant funny.
But, at the same time, I have high hopes for Iraheta. The AV Club’s Claire Zulkey hopes that Iraheta gets to show up Disney tween sensations like Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato and show them how to really rock without the mouse (though, sadly, still within a major label system). I do too.
So, we’re down to three contestants, all of whom are adult white dudes. We’ve got the inoffensive Christian hottie-next-door (Kris), the high camp rocker that I hope kisses one of his fellow competitors on stage (Adam), and the offensive Christian d-bag (Danny). At this point, I don’t really care who wins (theoretically, I’m backing Adam, but in terms of actual preference, meh). Just please don’t let Bolton Light win. Otherwise, I might have to make like Iraheta and punch him in the chest.
It’s with a heavy heart that I report that Lil Rounds, the gorgeous, scrappy mother of three from Memphis, is out of the competition to be the next American Idol. And they kicked her out so anti-climactically — right at the beginning, after the awful, hokey group performance of the Jackson 5′s “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” tying last night’s disco theme together in a heinous way (also, did anyone else notice that the obligatory Ford music video was for Lykke Li’s “I’m Good, I’m Gone”?). She didn’t even get to be in the hot seat! They just sent her home, letting her kill “I’m Every Woman” one last time.
I’m sad for a few reasons. One, Lil Rounds had such an awesome, promising start in the competition. She was my early favorite. Do you remember when she performed Mary J’s “Be Without You” at the very beginning, securing her a spot in the Top 12? Do you remember how she, to borrow from judge Randy Jackson, “blew it out the box”?
The thing is, she could never really hold onto that (though I liked her renditions of Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”). She kept choosing goopy ballads or copying iconic artists (I mean, you can’t touch Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, much less copy her look — you just can’t). In short, it seemed like she had a hard time figuring out who she was. If I were a judge, I’d be like “listen to less 80s-era Whitney and more Sharon Jones.”
But also, this was a bad season for ladies. I wanted Alexis Grace to have the chance to develop. I wanted Megan Corkrey (later Megan Joy) to be as good as her audition. And I hope Allison Iraheta, the rad 17-year-old girl with the whiskey voice and hair straight out of Jem and the Holograms who narrowly escaped elimination tonight, gets the prize (or at least gets to square off with boy-next-door Kris Allen and the divisive, gender queer, Hot Topic rocker Adam Lambert — I’m beyond done with the white boy appropriations of sub-Timberlake Matt Giraud and sub-Michael McDonald Danny Gokey).
And, of course, Lil’s exit needs to be put in a larger context around the show’s troublesome history with race. Black people have it harder on Idol, especially the ladies. Tamyra Gray was let go before her time. So was Jennifer Hudson, though she seems to be doing well. Mandisa was also an early favorite of mine (though her lack of tolerance for the LGBT community is unfortunate). Fantasia Barrino was the first female African American winner, but she hasn’t received nearly the mainstream success that fellow winners and Southern girls like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have gotten. Paris Bennett was let go the season that the insufferable Taylor Hicks won (man, talk about white boy appropriation). The worst for me was the finals for season 6, when it seemed that the darker and less normative the contestant was, the quicker they were let go (LeKeesha Jones, Melinda Doolittle), until we were left with the white boy beatboxer and the mixed race, purity ring-wearing, Christian who could pass.
Anyway, I hope this isn’t the last we hear of Lil. She’s got a great voice, a great name (!), and a lot of heart. Hopefully, she can figure out how to market it.