Followers of this blog probably know that I’m a fan of fellow Houstonian Beyoncé. To my mind, Slate music critic Jody Rosen is right to call the last decade in popular music the Beyoncés. In a recent column for Bitch, Sarah Jaffe trumpeted her praises and recalled Sara Stroo’s Bitch Tapes mix organized around songs about getting dressed, which included “Freakum Dress.” I’ve written a bit on her myself, most notably a response to Dayo Olopade’s piece in The Root about whether the pop star is the heir(ess) to Michael Jackson’s legacy.
All this Beyoncé chatter got me thinking about two music videos in particular. Though the (de)racialized dimensions of constructing gender performance define her work, these two clips are especially noteworthy.
The first is “Freakum Dress,” which takes its name from a slang term that refers to a tight, short number. A freakum dress is a companion to fuck-me pumps, though I think cheap material and guady design are purposely employed for effect and would note that this is yet another instance where B brings urban black vocabulary into the mainstream. I don’t like the message of the song, which advises women with roving-eyed male partners to objectify themselves to ensure fidelity. The two effeminate male attendants who dress B give me pause as well, as they obviously abide by the stereotype of the gay man as his female friends’ accessory and mediator for heterosexual courtship. But I think the racial and ethnic diversity and costuming on this one is interesting, particularly when B dons professorial bifocals at the end. Plus her lipgloss applicator lights up, which is pretty rad.
Directed by Ray Kay and Beyoncé
Then we have “Why Don’t You Love Me?” which I think is one of the more interesting videos I’ve seen in recent memory. Around the time of its release, I remember my friend Kristen at Dear Black Woman, made a characteristically astute observation I hope she elaborates on at some point. She commented on how B is ingratiating herself into the iconography of the post-war era white housewife, a role traditionally off limits to black women in media representations. To put it reductively, she’s Betty Draper instead of Carla. I get some Kenneth Anger in there as well, though perhaps without the gay misogyny film critic Pauline Kael accuses him and his peers of in an essay collected in I Lost It at the Movies.
“Why Don’t You Love Me?”
I Am . . . Sasha Fierce: Platinum Edition
Directed by Melina Matsoukas
Today is the first installment of a new series I’d like to start here on musical cameos in movies. It’s akin to the “Scene It” posts, except these entries would only focus on musical artists who make brief but noteworthy appearances in certain movies. At my friend Jacob’s nudging, I thought the perfect inaugural entry of this series would be L7’s supporting role as a rock band in John Waters’s 1994 feature Serial Mom.
First, I’ll preface by saying that I’m not so well-versed in Waters’s singularly tacky ouevre. I saw Hairspray at some point during my childhood. I later watched the remake, which didn’t make me as mad as purists. Sure, the remake was tame. But as it’s also not a remake of the original, but as a reboot of the Broadway adaptation. Thus I don’t think of it as a Waters movie and instead view it as an enjoyable, if defanged, movie musical. I viewed Female Trouble before starting grad school, which I thought was visually arresting and at times wickedly funny, but also plodding and meandering in the second half. I happened on Pink Flamingos‘ singing asshole scene once at my parents’ house, but haven’t watched the rest of Waters’s directorial debut as yet.
I am a fan of Waters, however. He seems like a swell guy and I wish we could be friends so we could watch movies together and trade mix CDs. He’s also the central character of “Homer’s Phobia,” one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons. I can also say that as relative Waters neophyte, Serial Mom delighted me.
There’s so much going on here. For one, it’s of its era. It can easily be read alongside several American movies from the 90s that indict celebrity scandal and tabloid culture, like To Die For, Natural Born Killers, SFW, and The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. Kathleen Turner stars as seemingly perfect homemaker Beverly Sutphin, could be lumped in with lethal blondes like Madonna and Basic Instinct’s Catherine Trammell, and has a love for Godfather of Gore filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis that she shares with Waters and her son Chip (Matthew Lillard). And while Sutphin is certainly in a higher class bracket than ABC’s titular domestic goddess Roseanne, several times the movie reminded of season two’s “Sweet Dreams,” wherein matriarch Roseanne Conner wishes for five minutes alone in the bath and dreams of killing her entire family. Both women are well aware of the strain that comes for some women who try to perfectly embody the seemingly natural roles of wife and mother.
No wonder Betty Draper broke a chair on Mad Men. She couldn’t get a hold of Don.
Yet I assumed much of this might be apparent on the surface. I also anticipated that Sutphin’s excessive femininity and blood lust could align her with Kathleen Rowe Karlyn’s construction of the unruly woman. However, I was pleasantly surprised that Sutphin killed largely to protect her family instead of commiting psychotic behavior in response to feeling trapped or tied down by them. Most notably for me, she defends the honor of her daughter Misty (Ricki Lake) by killing her philandering boyfriend. What’s more, her husband, son, and, daughter are ultimately quite supportive of her. So while it’s bad to kill people, I was pleasantly surprised that this killer wasn’t pathologized or villified for her actions. It’s an unsettling sense of satisfaction, to be sure. But it’s comforting to know that Suthpin would only sink her scissors into my stomach if I really had it coming.
I was also pleased by L7’s performance as punk band Camel Lips. True to their name, the members sport considerable ‘toe further emphasized by their stretch pants. L7 confronted many people with its own caustic mutations of conventional femininity. They left David Letterman aroused and startled after an appearance on Late Night.
Leader Donita Sparks also dislodged her tampon and threw it at a disrespectful crowd at the Reading Festival, which I hope is being preserved properly. If Kathleen Hanna’s papers are getting archived, there should be a place for this artifact too. Finally, the band’s interest in surf rock and rockabilly indicate that, much like Supthin’s idealization of the 50s housewife and Waters’s love of pulp and gore, there’s nothing innocent about the past.
I’ve been thinking about Alexandra Patsavas for a long time. She started blipping on my radar during the first season of The O.C., which she helped make a phenomenon early in the show’s run. She’s worked similar magic for Grey’s Anatomy and collaborates with creator Josh Schwartz, who also gave us The O.C., Chuck, Gossip Girl, and Rockville CA. Her credits are all over network and cable television. She’s also worked in film, most notably with the Twilight franchise.
What does she do, you ask? She’s a music supervisor, and one of the few women to rise to such prominence in the industry. The role of music supervisor has expanded considerably in the past fifteen years or so to include legal finagling with record labels. I’d also argue that their role, depending on the project and the collaborative spirit of a director or show runner, warrants entitlement to authorial claims. As such, Patsavas is also the person largely responsible for the commercialization of indie rock during the 2000s, almost single-handedly catapulting bands like Death Cab for Cutie into mainstream success. She even has a hand in distribution, as the indie-friendly Twilight soundtracks that she developed were released on her record label, Chop Shop.
Thus, she’s been a figure I’ve followed obsessively during this decade, sometimes causing me to sniff that I’d never sell independent music out like she has and other times provoking me to growl “bitch took my job,” depending on my cash flow at the time. Either way, I’m fascinated with her and think we should think about her work more closely.
It seems I’m not alone in thinking Ms. Patsavas is interesting. In a previous post on designer Anna Sui and her Gossip Girl-inspired collection for Target, reader Alaina made an astute comment about the shared importance of music and fashion on the show. To her, if anyone on the trendsetting teen soap has the cultural clout akin to, say, Sex and the City costume designer Pat Field, it isn’t designer Eric Daman but music supervisor Patsavas.
Now, I don’t want to put words in her mouth so hopefully she’ll feel compelled to elaborate her point further. But I interpreted her comment to mean that Patsavas’s work on Schwartz’s television shows, which all feature characters who are tremendously literate in popular and independent music, creates a sense of authenticity both for the show and for the characters whose lives are changed and identities formed by the right song from Spoon, Sonic Youth, LCD Soundsystem, Death Cab for Cutie, Air, Daft Punk, or any other cool-kid music act. In fact, Seth Cohen and Dan and Jenny Humphrey might not even exist without her, as they certainly wouldn’t know what band names to drop. Thus, Patsavas creates a brand awareness akin to the sort of work Field did through Carrie Bradshaw in making Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo, and Christian Louboutin such household names.
For me, though, perhaps her most fascinating work is on Mad Men, which is often period-appropriate but sometimes dabbles with pointed anachronism, thus potentially opening up inquiry about the show’s relationship to historical authenticity. The most jarring (and discussed) musical moment so far has been season two’s “Maidenform,” which opens to Betty Draper, Joan Holloway, and Peggy Olsen getting dressed to the galloping strains of The Decemberists’s “The Infanta,” a track off Picaresque that was released in 2005 and not 1962. I’m assuming she’s responsible for selecting the show’s theme as well, though imagine score composer David Carbonara or creator/show runner/auteur Matthew Weiner could be responsible. Regardless, this is easily the show’s most heard but least commented upon bit of anachronism.
As I mentioned in my comment to Gary Edgerton’s essay for In Media Res about the show’s opening credits, the theme song is not the work of Bernard Herrmann or a Carbonara approximation. It’s an instrumental version of a song called “A Beautiful Mine.” The people responsible for it are an instrumental hip hop artist named RDJ2, a rapper from Freestyle Fellowship named Aceyalone, and a period-appropriate violinist named Enoch Light, whose “Autumn Leaves” provides the basis for the tune. The song originally appeared on Acey’s Magnificent City.
Pointedly, his vocals are absent from the show’s theme. I suppose a black man’s rap might be too anachronistic for some. But I also think there’s something unsettling about such an argument. It may either provide a comment on the deliberate absence of people of color in a show set in pre-integration America or validate many of the show’s detractors who cry “racism!” I think it does both.
Thus, song selection matters. But of course, so do song selectors.
Note: Today’s post on Mad Men absolutely contains spoilers. In order to set up the particular scene that will take focus, I had to contextualize other key developments in a character’s life at this point in the series. If you’re not there yet, perhaps you’ll get to it. Keep this post in mind when you do.
Two musical moments for women in as many weeks? Oh, Mad Men. You are the gift that keeps on giving. Last week, I wrote about a scene involving Peggy Olson. Today, I will consider a key scene for office manager Joan Holloway (note: as she married Dr. Greg Harris, she’s now Joan Harris; however, I will refer to her as “Holloway”). And both involve music! Delightful.
Last Sunday, at her husband’s urging, Holloway broke out an accordian and sang “C’est Magnifique” from Cole Porter’s Can-Can to entertain guests for a dinner party they were holding at home. This scene is in sharp juxtaposition with Holloway’s current situation which, as with everything in Mad Men, is hardly magnificent.
That this scene happens at a dinner party is crucial. Older than Olson by a few years, Holloway is in her early 30s and potentially informed by what Noel Murray might call hostess feminism, where wives define themselves as masters of the art of entertaining — cooking, entertainment, hospitality, charming conversation — in order to impress the work associates of their professional, commanding husbands. If we recall from season two, Holloway is transfixed by Jacqueline Kennedy giving a televised tour of the White House. Her preoccupation with being the great and immaculately turned-out woman behind the great man may also speak to her status as the office sex symbol and why she seems the most shaken when Marilyn Monroe dies.
Hostess feminism seems the most applicable term for Holloway in last week’s episode, wherein she holds a dinner party for her husband’s boss. In our current iteration of feminism (or, ugh, post-feminism), some may argue that playing hostess has been reclaimed as progressive, being fluent in Emily Post as a formidable skill-set, and women throw homefront soirées because they want to, not because society has ordained that they be relegated to the domestic. I get this logic, but don’t think it’s that simple here.
Of course, women opting out of the workforce to be wives and mothers is not inherently bad. Feminism is about choice (though, it must also be noted, opting out of the workforce is also about means). Mothers are key players in our society, in that they keep the species alive and, if they do a good job, contribute kind, well-adjusted, and productive people.
It just seems that being a wife and mother wouldn’t be fulfilling to a professional woman like Holloway. Even when conforming to traditional office gender politics, it’s always under the guise of professional decorum (witness how she handles the humiliating run-in with nemesis Jane, Don Draper’s twentysomething former assistant and the new Mrs. Roger Sterling, who Holloway counts as an ex). She clearly possesses more institutional knowledge of Sterling Cooper than almost anyone. We even got an all-too-brief sense for Joan’s knack for television advertising in a season two episode, a knack the boys unfortunately overlooked. They couldn’t get past the cheesecake to see the burgeoning mad woman.
So, Joan’s decision to throw all of her interests into the domestic — strongly implied by her “maturing” age and that may be running out of time — is a little disconcerting, as she herself seems to realize. It doesn’t seem like she wants this life so much as she’s internalized that this is what’s she’s supposed to want. It’s what’s expected — and if you ever need a dark mirror image of how unfulfilling these roles can be to the women who occupy but don’t connect with them, look no further than Mrs. Mommy’s Time Out herself, Betty Draper.
An additional layer to Joan’s domestic unrest is with whom she’s chosen to make her life. Her husband, a doctor at St. Luke’s, has proven himself to be far from the great man any woman can stand behind. Last season, we witnessed him raping his intended in Don Draper’s office — an act of violence he probably dismisses as kinky rough play. In this ugly moment, we see Joan’s eye glaze over the legs of a chair as she’s ground further and further into the floor. It doesn’t get much lower on the corporate rung for this office manager than this. In addition to his brutish behavior, he may have scarce professional resources, as indicated by a botched operation he kept from his wife mentioned in passing by one of his colleagues that may result in him getting passed over her residency. In short, this horrible guy she committed her life to might be more of an albatross than she anticipated.
Which brings us to her impromptu performance of “C’est Magnifique.” Though coming from a musical written by an American, after having read Kelley Conway’s piece on the chanteuse réaliste and Phil Powrie’s piece on the role the accordian has played in French cinema in cultivating a national identity, it’s hard for me not to look for links between Holloway’s and Fréhel’s sexualized, economically marginal position. The big difference, however, is in delivery. Where Fréhel celebrates being raunchy, Holloway’s performance is professional, efficient, and unflappable.
It’s also what might be called pointedly empty. Part of this can be attributed to Holloway’s disembodied vocal performance. While it sounds like the voice pushing through actress Christina Hendricks’s mouth is her own, she is also clearly dubbed, her vocal take recorded in some unseen studio some time ago. Thus, there’s a clear break between singer and actor, even if the speaking voice and singing voice seem to match up.
This disembodiedness has an edge to it. Holloway recognizes the cruel irony of the seemingly lovely-dovey lyrics. She may also see a bit of herself in La Môme Pistache, Can-Can‘s protagonist. Both women now just how tragic love can be when it turns out to be a lie. My hope is that the character who is working through these issues on AMC this season is proactive in trying to find a viable solution. I’d hate for her to become as hollow as her maiden name implies.
So, after writing about my nostalgia last week, I thought I’d reflect on truly borrowed nostalgia: the music of my mother’s generation. I’m specifically thinking about the emergence of the female singer-songwriter, who came into vogue in the mid-1960s New York-based folk scene and became a cultural juggernaut by the end of the decade and into the mid-1070s with women like Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, for whom Sheila Weller wrote a toothsome, comprehensive biography last year called Girls Like Us.
The women’s sound(s), look(s), and message(s) would help destigmatize (if only for a moment) the feminist movement (if still largely configured to be a straight, middle-class, white woman’s struggle). They also helped pave the way for a revival of female singer-songwriters in the 1990s, helping result in the established careers of Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, and Björk, as well as the launch of festivals like Lilith Fair (which is rumored to make a return in 2010).
And, though perhaps a stretch, I kept thinking about these three women in relation to Betty Draper, Joan Holloway, and Peggy Olsen on Mad Men, three very different women beginning to weather and confront seismic shifts in gender and sexual politics at the beginning of the 1960s that the three artists featured in this book would at times undo, surrender to, and be blocked by at the end of the decade and into the 1970s.
Having read this book, I wonder if any of the women of Mad Men became fans of these artists. Would any of these women help make Tapestry one of the best-selling albums of all time? Betty and Joan may be a little too old, but I think they’d respectively empathize with Joni’s mother’s need to have a perfect Norwegian beauty for a daughter and Carly’s conflicting feelings about her sex-bomb identity. Peggy seems just the right age to follow these women, as she does accompany a co-worker to see Bob Dylan in season two. Personally, I think she’d be a huge Carole King fan. Two tough Brooklynite professionals with a knack for commercial pop art? Yeah, I think they’d find one another.
The key thing I appreciated about Girls Like Us, which does an exhaustive job documenting these three women’s personal and professional lives, is its committment to dialoging the artists with one another. Often, when attempts of this sort are made, it results in playing women off each other or reducing them to one singular entity (in this case, chick singer-songwriter seems the most apt dismissive). Weller does an admirable job individuating them (further enforced by using a different font for each woman), while at the same time highlighting where they overlap or interact and putting them in a gendered generational context of women and girls coming into their own particular feminist awakenings.
Notably, these women were all self-made. Carole Klein and Canadian-born Roberta Joan Anderson became Carole King and Joni Mitchell, toiling for years in the Brill Building and the coffeehouse circuit before becoming legendary. And Carly Simon, born into the New York elite as the third child of the Simon family (yes, of Simon & Schuster), had to start from scratch after years of following artist boyfriends, watching her sisters get married, and working odd jobs before landing a career. They also established themselves as icons at the same time. 1971 would be the year that King released her second solo album, Tapestry, culminating in one of the few Grammy wins for Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Album of the Year for a female artist. That same year, Mitchell would release Blue, a huge artistic breakthrough. And in 1972, alongside King’s sweep, Simon would win her Grammy for Best New Artist for her self-titled debut.
One unfortunate commonality all three women share is a need to make men happy, almost always the wrong man or the undeserving man. This is a lesson I saw many of my mother’s generation learn the hard way, and fear it will continue to play out with other women and girls, but hope we’ll learn from history. For Carole, this meant four marriages — first to her Brill Building lyricist Gerry Goffin (who would father singer Earl-Jean McCrae’s daughter Dawn while still married to King), then to bassist Charles Larkey, then to two chauvinist mountain men named Rick. For Joni, this meant marrying a man named Chuck Mitchell who (in her account) forced her to give up an infant daughter (her pregnancy, and giving up a daughter, would haunt Mitchell for years until she was reuinted with Kilauren in the late 1990s). For Carly, this meant using her sexual wiles to snare a man at all costs, a lesson she learned from her mother Andrea, before casting her lot with a man that would remain a drug addict for the majority of their marriage before unceremoniously dumping her.
Both Carole and Carly suffered considerable heartache, though Joni, perhaps a typical only child, often would cut and run, preferring solitude and creative freedom to being tied down, a lesson she learned by following Crosby, Stills, and Nash while living with Graham Nash. The woman who wrote “Woodstock” would not be cast as another man’s groupie.
As Carly’s man was James Taylor, it seems important to point out that all three of these women had some connection with Sweet Baby James. As James (along with almost all male rock stars of the era) was in awe of Carole King’s legacy as a Brill Building composer, he often covered her work extensively, most notably “You’ve Got a Friend.”
King nursed an unrequited crush, though her songwriter Toni Stern wrote “It’s Too Late” after the end of her affair with Taylor.
Joni dated James for a while. It ended, but at least she and Carly became friendly later in life.
And Carly presumably expedited the matrimonial process by writing “You’re So Vain” and getting one of her rumored paramours, Mick Jagger, to contribute back-up vocals. Taylor proposed shortly thereafter, creating the first rock star marriage. However, he would often get sidelined by his ongoing battle with heroin, as well as his wife’s meteoric rise to pop stardom. She would often worry herself sick and modify her behavior for Taylor, a symptom Weller believes is linked to wanting to please her disengaged father.
Yet, I don’t want to suggest these women are patriarchy’s tragic casualties. I certainly don’t think they would. Carole continued a long professional partnership with Goffin, and also accepted Dawn, Goffin’s daughter with McRae, as one of her own children, something her biological children did as well. In addition, she became very politically active, lobbying hard for environmental issues, particularly working to preserve Idaho’s wildlife after falling in love with its woodlands.
Joni kept pushing herself further artistically, regardless of whether or not she was met with critical acclaim. She most notably began incorporating jazz elements into her music, hiring reputable session musicians and expanding her sonic and lyrical styles (though also began playing with race and lauding “natural” blackness, which Weller takes to task, specifically when talking about Mitchell’s black alter ego Art Nouveau, which she poses as in blackface for the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter).
And Carly was most prominent in the mainstreaming of feminism (though not without its own issues — in the 1970s, feminism was often a Seven Sisters game and Simon, a Sarah Lawrence dropout born from a wealthy family, fit right in). She also promoted the celebration of female sexual agency and autonomy, complicating the widely-held belief that all second wavers were man-haters waging a war on sex. She also had a liberated attitude toward sex, which Weller supports with conjectures that “You’re So Vain” is actually about multiple men. In addition, Simon has alluded to having an open marriage and being bisexual, as well as being an advocate for LGBT rights.
In short, these women mattered. They shaped the perspectives and actions of millions of women and girls of my mother’s generation. They proved that female artists could garner a huge mainstream audience (a lesson that needed to be reminded to A&R folks, concert promoters, and radio programmers in the 1990s, resulting in countercultural movements like riot grrrl and mainstream enterprises like Lilith Fair). And they continue to influence female recording artists and their listeners. And, most importantly, they continue to work, just as their male counterparts do, regardless of whether or not they are deemed culturally relevant. Let their voices be heard.