In her first appearance on Saturday Night Live’s season finale last May, St. Vincent performed “Digital Witness.” Apart from being struck by how great she sounded (more of an exception than a rule for SNL), I found it compelling how singer Annie Clark harnessed the televisual potential of her stage show by referencing her nervous tics in director Chino Moya’s “Digital Witness” video. In the clip, Clark punctuates the ends of phrases by stiffly nodding her head to the side as green-, yellow-, and blue- replicants march, tap, and roll pencils in a Futurist office space and business park.
On SNL, Clark and bassist/keyboardist Toko Yasuda elaborated upon the video’s dance routine—created by choreographer Annie-B Parson—so that it scaled for both television and the stage. Their movements were more exaggerated. They used dance as an opportunity to interact with each other and their instruments. Clark also took her pulse and performed other gestures that weren’t in the clip. The performance simultaneously recalled collaborator David Byrne’s “big suit” dance to “Girlfriend Is Better” in Stop Making Sense and the Supremes’ Ed Sullivan Show appearances. In truth, you can’t have one without the other. That’s probably why Byrne also commissioned dances from Parson. After all, punk bands learned how to dress alike and write short songs by playing along to the Shangri-Las and the Crystals.
St. Vincent’s choreography visualizes the song’s commentary on technology’s role in turning existence into a series of naturalized, performative gestures and interactions. Clark’s jerky execution suggests that these routines can cause us to short-circuit, particularly when we buckle under the restraint of isolated tasks or when people don’t notice that we’re doing them. Yet there’s also a ritual to mundane activities like checking email, browsing through a reader feed, and refreshing Facebook—things I do while sipping my morning coffee.
Though these gestures are not explicitly religious (though they could be, given Clark’s thematic convictions), they appear weightier and more deliberate when represented through choreography. In this way, St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” dance recalls EMA’s routine for her apocalyptic 2010 single, “California,” a place vulnerable to a Biblical reckoning precipitated by menstruation, youth, loss, paranoia, and other human follies rescued by the divine. Through dance, Erika M. Anderson articulates the slippage between the sacred and the profane. In her hands, a weapon becomes the cross.
In Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance, Kiri Miller advocates the pedagogical utility of video games like Guitar Hero, as well as online instructional videos. By mobilizing “genres of participation,” a concept first advanced by cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito in her co-authored book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, Miller convincingly argues that gameplay can help users develop their creative and technical skills as musicians. It also problematizes neat distinctions between amateur and professional instrumentalists.
I’m not sure how to apply “genres of participation” to choreography. I can. Learning to perform Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance requires more than rote memorization. You have to be able to count. You have to be able to contort your body in time to the music, anticipating every turn and kick. Dancing as part of a crowd also requires sensitivity not just to the recording, but to ensemble’s internal rhythm. Too much spin or stretch in one dancer’s steps can ruin the illusion of uniformity. But there’s also virtuosity at work in dance that blurs easy distinctions between who originated the routine and who imitated it. I remember seeing two female cheerleaders face off to Britney Spears’ “Oops!…I Did It Again” at a high school Sadie Hawkins dance. By the first chorus, I was so mesmerized by their precision and skill that I had trouble identifying where the Britney on television ended and the Brittany in the cafeteria began.
Jackson and Spears’ dance routines clearly exist as genres of participation. Fans demonstrate their commitment to pop idols by replicating their moves. For some, such performances also serve as an indication of their own talents. Spears became a performer by playing along with Michael Jackson. Historically, dance is how fans are perceived to participate in pop music. As scholars like Norma Coates have persuasively claimed, rock was legitimated through discourses that removed the genre from feminized leisure activities like dancing and situated it within hegemonically masculine cultural practices like criticism, collecting, and instrument instruction. In order for rock to function as a genre of participation, you could pick up a typewriter, a record, or a guitar. You couldn’t get down.
At the risk of making yet another facile comparison between contemporary concept-oriented female recording artists and Kate Bush, the gestural choreography on “Digital Witness” and “California” recalls how Bush used her face, hands, and body to represent Heathcliff and Cathy’s desire on “Wuthering Heights.” Of course, such comparisons require us to consider how Bush’s decision to train under renowned choreographer Lindsay Kemp might serve as indication that she first became “Kate Bush” by playing along to David Bowie.
Ultimately, what I find compelling about St. Vincent and EMA’s choreography is how it opens up rock as a genre of participation by reclaiming dance as one of its essential features. Most of St. Vincent and EMA’s fans might still show their appreciation by picking up guitars and raising their voices, which is great. I’ve never seen people dance along to “Digital Witness” or “California” in concert. I haven’t bothered to learn the routines myself, which I should reconsider. But as a fan, I cannot deny the importance of those gestures, what they mean to their corresponding songs, and how it allows fans different ways to play along with their heroines.
When Vampire Weekend released Modern Vampires of the City late last spring, several critics praised the album and group’s burgeoning maturity. The markers were easy to hear—the multi-textured production aesthetic, the religious references, the desire to nest, the mourning of geography lost to memory, the jolting intimacies of road trip arguments, the extracted wisdom teeth. Their third album is great. I was particularly struck by Rostram Batmanglij and Ezra Koenig’s evolution as composers. Their work with producer Ariel Rechtshaid is confident and balanced. They motivate the varied sonic elements and flourishes on this record by giving them a sense of space. Koenig continues to improve as a songwriter as well, shading his stories and monologues with rich character detail and incessant melody.
I stopped short of using “mature” to describe the album. What does that word mean in this context? Is a quartet of Columbia alum older and therefore wiser simply because they started meditating on God, mortgages, and mortality in their late 20s? Or was it that they became better at editing themselves in the studio? So often, “maturity” seems bound up in discourses of refinement and respectability. If that’s the case, what do we do with a track like “Diane Young,” a short, kaleidoscopic freakout about being cut down in the prime of life that sounds a bit like George Michael’s “Faith”?
How is maturity gendered? Last year, I kept returning to Fiona Apple’s excellent 2012 album The Idler Wheel… I love a lot of things about that record. Since female vocals were my transitional object, I focus on her voice. Apple’s lower register was always a sign of her maturity. When she started her recording career as a teenager, some dismissed it as precocious or pathologized it as a remnant of the sexual violence she survived as a child. But as Apple has gotten older, there’s such variety to her low notes. Sometimes they fray out of fatigue or boredom. Sometimes they land like bullets. Sometimes they curl up from anxiety or erotic anticipation. Her upper register is beautifully elastic and without vanity. Her ear for phrasing continues to sharpen, gracefully making conversation and inner monologue swerve, dip, and pivot like a choreographer.
But what I identify with most about Idler is how evocatively Apple’s lyrics capture the uncertainty that comes from getting older. You may accumulate experience as you age. People may perceive you as wise when they look upon the gray streaks in your hair and the drawn lines upon your face. But you may not feel wise when you’re crying over dinner, losing yourself in a person, or sitting alone in your apartment. In those moments, you don’t always feel mature. And if maturity is bound up in certain rites of passage and markers of fiscal responsibility—marriage, parenthood, property acquisition—that you haven’t achieved or can’t meet, you might feel pretty childish.
Yet you may also know yourself more. You may have a better sense of your preferences, behavioral cues, bad habits, or scripts. You may know better what you look for in companionship. You may better understand who you can trust with multiple dimensions of yourself and who you can’t. You may stop trying to impress people or compare yourself to your perception of others’ successes. You may get better at listening and articulating need and learning from past mistakes. That might mean the wrinkles and streaks that line and shade your face represent a wisdom that comes from ambivalence.
Being young and famous seems like the worst. It seems like such a fleeting, exhaustive, uncertain thing to hang your identity upon. It plays chicken with failure. The tonal shift between Justin Bieber’s two mug shots illustrates this nicely, as well as the wrecked complexion and bewildered gaze in both photographs. It’s why Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” sounds like a funeral dirge.
I’m currently researching female pop star fragrance collections. At the moment, I’m exploring how Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears’ respective licensing arrangements with Coty, Inc. and Elizabeth Arden influenced this paratextual extension of postfeminist celebrity labor. As I’ve been digging through the trades, I’ve been most struck by how Spears’ partnership with Elizabeth Arden served as a way to allay industrial and cultural anxiety surrounding her declining musical career and mental health in the mid- to late 2000s. At the same time, sustaining a fragrance collection puts pressure on pop stars to reinvent and fragment themselves with each campaign. One fragrance is not enough. The market relies upon turning pop stars into brands that are supported by fractured, regenerative sexiness and discursively invisible manufacturing practices.
In American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence’s character professes to love the smell of top coat, which is “perfume-y but there’s also something rotten.” Cosmetics promise us youth and newness, but their properties change as we wear them on our skin. My wrists smell differently at the end of the day from when I apply an invigorating spritz to them as part of my morning routine.
Fiona Apple doesn’t have her own fragrance collection. When she kissed off the VMAs in 1997, she revoked her chances for such licensing ventures. I feel guilty that this was the moment when I started to like Apple. I was skeptical of Apple when her debut album, Tidal, came out in 1996. Though I was happy to see a wave of angry young women seize the air, I was concerned about how this might get co-opted and homogenized. I was also incredulous of her age, perhaps for similar reasons why people take issue with Lorde. What if people latched onto her, only to drain her resources and cast her aside before she turned 25?
If “respectability” is hegemonic, then how do we understand immaturity? I want to resist constructing a simple binary that casts it as maturity’s opposite, particularly because the demarcations between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood aren’t so neatly delineated. I keep replaying another VMA moment over in my head. Miley Cyrus’ performance late last summer upset me. I carried it with me into the classroom the following fall, often referring to it or to her trajectory and confronting the performance directly in a lecture I gave on intersectionality. Many critics objected to her lewd behavior. I didn’t really care about Cyrus cavorting in a beige bikini and waving a foam finger. Much of her performance felt like a rite of passage. Spears stripped down to a rhinestone-studded beige bodysuit in 2000. At least there was something agentic and humorous about Cyrus’ display, like she was making fun of sexy.
What made my stomach turn was Cyrus’ racial appropriation. This was why I asked students what it meant for her to take up visual signifiers of ratchet culture as a white woman and how it means differently when black female pop stars like Beyoncé take them up. How would we feel if Rihanna performed this song, since writer-producer Mike WiLL Made It originally pitched it to her? What surprised me was that this wasn’t the issue about Cyrus’ performance for many people. What did it mean for Cyrus to hire the LA Bakers as her back-up dancers for the video and VMA performance for “We Can’t Stop”? What did Amazon Ashley’s presence—her height, her size—mean? What did it mean for Cyrus to slap her ass? What do we do with their labor? What does their participation mean to them? What does it mean to Cyrus?
Madonna’s performance of “Like a Virgin” at the 1984 VMAs may have created the template for young female pop stars with designs on integrating sexual maturity into their brand. But Cyrus’ performance of “We Can’t Stop” brought to mind Madonna’s performance of “Vogue” at the 1990 ceremony, which heavily referenced Marie Antoinette. I thought about the presence of black and Latin bodies as servants and members of the court. On the one hand, it was interesting to see these subjects get written into such Eurocentric histories. On the other hand, their presence doesn’t challenge Madonna’s ability to rule from the center. I thought about the dancers. What did their work mean for Madonna? What did it mean to them? For example, in one interview, back-up dancer Niki Harris recalled hearing the concept for the performance. She reminded Madonna that white powder didn’t look good on black skin.
What bothers me about Cyrus is that she’s consistently defended, excused, or explained away her VMA performance. Sometimes it seems like she’s trolling us. At least Cyrus hasn’t covered Lou Reed’s “I Wanna Be Black.” Perhaps taking time out of an interview to entertain the other side of the debate would keep her from staying on message, but I worry that Cyrus’ dismissal of such critique suggests that pop means never having to say you’re sorry. But some great music came out of apologies and reappraisals. In the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing women like Apple, Beyoncé, Janelle Monaé, Cat Power, Erykah Badu, and Neko Case challenge maturity. Perhaps Cyrus will change her tune as she gets older and more ambivalent.
If I’ve learned anything from teaching undergraduates in a survey on contemporary media this semester, it’s that many of them like Lorde. A handful of students claimed “Royals” as their song of the summer during first-week introductions. Two weeks later, I had students select four movies, TV shows, songs, and video games for a scavenger hunt where they had to determine what media conglomerates “owned” the media properties in question. One student threw “Royals” on the board, to the enthusiasm of several classmates. Then, over the last two weeks, we’ve returned to the U.S. and international versions of the “Royals” music video to talk about form and ideology, respectively. They’ve had a lot to say about each version, and were particularly interested in talking about her work and image. For a semester that began amid the backlash of Miley Cyrus’s divisive VMA performance (more on that later; I have thoughts), the New Zealand prodigy is as much a recurring presence in class discussion as pop’s reigning wrecking ball.
I’ve guided students through analyses of both versions of the video eight times in the past two weeks. So “Royals” and I are familiar with one other. I’m especially fascinated by how Lorde (with director Joel Kefali) chooses to present herself in the medium. Simply put, she has a cavalier attitude toward lip syncing. She often fixes her gaze on the camera with her mouth closed as the track plays around her. She takes this to its logical extreme in the video to her follow-up single, “Tennis Court,” by only mouthing the word “yeah.”
What does this mean, exactly? A student pointed out that Lorde’s “non”-presentation shifted her expectations for how female pop stars represent themselves in music videos. It’s more commonplace for pop stars to objectify themselves for the purposes of promotion. In addition, the burden of self-objectification is uniquely bestowed upon women. The expectation of how women represent themselves in music video tends to rely upon sexualization. We expect a red-lipped Miley to lick a mallet. We anticipate Rihanna to sit on a throne in a diamond bra and barely-there denim hot pants. I don’t believe that those expectations result in straightforward analyses that “prove” that female pop stars are complicit in male-driven fantasies of women’s objectification. As Susan Elizabeth Shepard, Ayesha A. Siddiqi, and Sarah Nicole Prickett argue, the hypnotic video for “Pour It Up” has more to do with female narcissism, athleticism, and solidarity than such blunt-instrument interpretations usually allow. It also complicates cultural readings of black female bodies as decorous, intrinsically sexual accessories that recirculated—powerfully, by scholars like Tressie McMillan Cottom—as a result of Cyrus’ VMA performance.
Of course, Lorde isn’t the only female pop star to stare at the camera. It’s traditionally used as a way to mark a singer’s vulnerability. In a tight close-up, we have access to her face as she fights back tears during emotional moments in her song. Sinead O’Connor famously shed a tear over the line “All the flowers that you planted, mama—in the back yard—all died when you went away” in “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Miley referenced O’Connor’s performance in “Wrecking Ball,” reportedly crying over the death of her dog and not the end of her relationship to Liam Hemsworth. Unfortunately, this homage resulted in an unfortunate exchange between the two singers that some note failed to engage meaningfully with intersectional concerns of pop music and appropriation.
Thus, it should be noted that Janelle Monáe also took up the indelible image of O’Connor’s tear-streaked face in the affecting video for “Cold War” a few years back. At certain points, Monáe is so caught up in the performance that she falls out of sync. When she gets to the line, “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me and it hurts my heart”, she lets the tears fall as the track breezes past her.
But Lorde doesn’t choose not to lip sync because she’s crying. In fact, her face deliberately obscures access to such emotions. My take on Lorde’s decision not to lip sync is that, in doing so, she is drawing attention to the artifice of music video as a popular form that often falls on women to perform. But, there’s something deeply calculated about Lorde’s self-presentation that is every bit as constructed as Miley’s tongue or Rihanna’s strip tease (or, for that matter, Katy Perry’s loin cloth in “Roar” and Britney Spears’ bottle of Fantasy perfume in “Work Bitch”).
One clear difference between the international and U.S. versions of the “Royals” video is Lorde’s presence. Lorde appears only a few times in the international version of the video—staring silently at the camera at the beginning and end of the video, and lip syncing part of the song’s bridge. In the U.S. version, there are more clips of her interspersed throughout. This is an important distinction to make. In New Zealand, she is more of a known figure. By now, it’s part of her lore that she was scouted by label representatives at junior high talent shows and signed a recording contract at 12. Until recently, she has also been rather protective of her image, only allowing a few pictures of herself to circulate. Lorde’s image is control. The tight, symmetrical framing and minimalist aesthetic of her videos illustrate this. Her lyrics—terse yet florid declarative statements about ambition, fame, and “authenticity”—reflect this too. Even her decision to record under the stage name Lorde—and not her given name, Ella Yelich-O’Connor—is one of control over people’s access to the “real” her. However, this reign on her image makes the integration of more footage of her in the U.S. version serve as evidence that Lorde is negotiating control over her image while attempting to enter the U.S. market on its terms.
But we must temper such readings about Lorde’s control over her image with her age and white female privilege. This is why I’m hesitant to sing her praises just yet. I don’t want to place undue emphasis on her age in a media culture that simultaneously gives precocious young white women such a wide margin of error and often exhausts their resources so quickly, an ideology of female success reinforced by the gendering of objectifying terms like “shelf life.” I want all female vocalists to have the room to stumble, record, and perform while accumulating life experience and gray hair. And obviously, whiteness has different cultural connotations in an international context. In New Zealand, whiteness must be interpreted alongside histories of colonialism. However, songs like “Royals” and “Tennis Court” directly confront issues like materialism, consumerism, and class privilege. With “Royals,” such commentary is inflected with—if not outright racism, as Verónica Bayetti Flores claims—a racialist edge that takes up hip-hop’s signifiers—gold teeth, Cristal, Cadillacs, bling, Queen Bs—in ways that are simultaneously “for everyone” in a post-racial context and embedded in distinctly black forms of cultural production.
As a white woman, Lorde gets to eschew these riches and strive for them at the same time. These are privileges that most teenage girls are not offered. Try as I might, I cannot imagine the mainstream incorporation of a video with a Māori sixteen-year-old girl stoically peering at a camera and choosing not to lip sync lyrics to her own song alongside images of her teenage male counterparts boxing each other. Thus, by not lip syncing, Lorde makes a principled decision to keep her mouth shut when so few young women are given the opportunity to open theirs at all. This is the privilege of cutting your teeth on wedding rings in defiance while reaching for the brass ring of mainstream success. My hope is that Lorde understands the weight of this and stares it straight in the face.
I’ll always feel for Britney Spears. I am thrilled that Beyoncé raced past the quartet of blonde girls to be the enduring pop star of her generation–outsinging Christina Aguilera even at triple pianissimo, channelling Tina Turner’s stage presence, putting forth something of a (racially problematic, materialistic) feminist rhetoric, and, taking a cue from Janet Jackson, insisting on having a personal life. Beyoncé clearly has a support system who quake when a shy Houston girl transforms into a diva while rehearsing backstage. Does Britney? At least she had her assistant Felicia.
Remember 2007, aka Britneywatch, no doubt the worst year of her life? She was soon to turn 27. I’m not a superstitious person, but I knew many past pop icons bit the big one at that age. I worried we’d lose her, either to an overdose or a car accident or by her own hand. I was hardly alone. South Park 86ed the laffs in “Britney’s New Look” to comment on the horror show her life had become and our collective involvement in its creation (one of my contributions: I felt really good about myself when she admitted to not “getting” Sundance selections because, you see, I watched Spirited Away). David Samuels wrote on Spears and tabloid journalism for The Atlantic. Tom Ewing compared her to Laura Palmer. Tobi Vail wanted to send her some Bikini Kill records after she shaved her head, a moment Beth Ditto noted as a potentially radical stance against a public she didn’t want touching her anymore.
I don’t know the exact nature of her mental anguish. Maybe it was being raised to be a pop star and treated like a commodity for so long without developing a better sense of self. Diet pills and an intense gym regimen certainly didn’t help. I don’t believe Courtney Love’s accusation that Spears was sexually abused by her father, but I would believe Spears if she made that charge, for the same reason I’d believe you or Mackenzie Phillips. But I’m glad she’s still with us. Like Jody Rosen, I enjoyed Femme Fatale. And I hope Britney is happy and has people looking out for her. I don’t know what Britney Spears did to “get better.” Frankly, I’m not convinced she did. Her comeback registered as hasty defense to me, but I’m willing to assume the best. So it makes me sad when I see comparisons between her early and current concert performances. A friend directed me to a clip and noted that the light from her eyes was gone. My concern is the restricted movement. One thing that gets overlooked in the outlining of Britney’s downward spiral is the knee injury she sustained from the video shoot to “Outrageous.” As a dancer and maybe as a person, she never recovered.
Blowing out her knee may have been even more depressing than the swarms of paparazzi she fought off or her marriage to Kevin Federline. Like Jackson, people dismissed Spears as “just” a dancer. These folks tend to overlook that while both artists have limited vocal ranges, they brought personality to their voices (see also: Rihanna, Madonna, Diana Ross). Jackson beguiled audiences as much with her whispered soprano as with her authority over any complicated dance routine. Likewise, Spears “sang” like a southern robot working through a head cold. It worked with her frayed-wire cyborg stage persona and anticipated that she’d be cast as a femmebot. Also, have you tried to do either of these women’s dance routines? One of my favorite high school moments was watching two cheerleaders in the middle of a Britney-off at a Sadie Hawkins dance. For one, it was hilarious because those girls were so serious about it. For another, it was impressive. High kicks, shimmies, lunges, punches, intricate foot work. Doing the routine to “Oops! . . . I Did It Again” is work. I don’t remember which girl won the battle, but both were probably sore in the morning.
The considerable amount of technological intervention that goes into pop vocals may isolate the star from the voice and the voice from the listener, which may explain why many producers seem to be channeling video game music these days. The chorus to the Dr. Luke/Max Martin/Billboard-produced “Till the World Ends” charges like DDR set on expert. This is no doubt why producers Stargate and Sandy Vee made the verses to “Only Girl (In the World)” sound like the music to Mortal Combat. Instant embodiment. Power up!
But to understand Spears is to engage with her changing body and how it can and cannot execute certain activities anymore. Thus it’s weird that there’s relatively little discussion about athleticism and issues around ability when talking about Spears, as these are essential components to understanding her as a performer. Then again, female dancers’ athleticism is often minimized, if not outright ignored, especially when they’re playing hurt or risking a sustained injury. Spears always lip synced, so her understanding of a song may have resided in using her body to act out its emotional register. I hope she’s not just going through the motions now. She’s not just an avatar. She’s Britney.
I’m okay with Katy Perry and Rihanna being buddies. I’m just gonna let it go like Andrea Plaid allowed Rihanna’s “S&M” video to circulate without clutching her pearls.
While I bristle at the idea that Perry allegedly wanted Ms. Fenty to serve as adult entertainment at her bachelorette party, I liked their connection ever since I saw those photos of the pair vacationing after Rihanna split with Chris Brown. I’m happy when any two female celebrities have a long-standing friendship. It’s why I like that Ellen Page and Alia Shawkat found each other, even if I reserve the right to hate on that TV series they pitched about crafty hipsters who relocate to Los Angeles. Female professionals should stick together. Work, both within and outside of the celebrity fishbowl, is a boys’ club. Solidarity is better than, you know, laughing at Britney while she snorts your cocaine or fighting over Wilmer Valderrama. Remember those dark days? Lohan forever.
I’ve made my feelings known about Perry. I’ve also been a die-hard Rihanna fan since “Pon de Replay” entered into heavy rotation. Hipster cred aside, Rihanna has had a phenomenal five-year run. Britney Spears released her first greatest hits compilation at that point in her career and Greatest Hits: My Prerogative and there’s some definite padding after “Toxic” and “I’m a Slave 4 U”. If Rihanna were to follow suit, there’d hardly be a slouch in the bunch. I only hope some Rated R cuts make it in.
By the way, I don’t mean any disrespect toward Britney’s inaugural best-of, especially since it includes “Do Somethin’”. I also believe that Britney released her best album to date in 2007. Blackout would be noteworthy for Robyn’s vocal work alone. But I’m with Rob Sheffield–it may be the most influential pop record of recent memory.
However, Perry and Rihanna’s friendship makes me think about my preferences. The majority of white feminists roundly dismissed Perry. Yet many of us praise Rihanna. Some of this might be weird hair envy, but a lot of our admiration stems from knowing she’s a survivor. We may read that into her music. But on the surface, Perry and Rihanna have a bit in common. Both are limited singers who have smartly aligned themselves with skillful producers who can craft a mean dance-pop gem. They also foreground their sexuality in somewhat conventional ways.
For me, the two diverge by how they construct their sexuality. Perry’s femme camp feels disingenuous, like she’ll only dance at the gay bars long enough to project footage from her wedding onto the train of her dress. Her conceptualization of female sexuality is ultimately passive, heteronormative, and shot through with regressive double standards. But Rihanna seems to draw strength from her sexuality, usually making demands and taking action instead of batting her eyelashes and letting the boys call the shots. Maybe they’ll come together on some future project. Here’s hoping they remember to recruit Britney and Nicki Minaj.
Sofia Coppola makes movies I almost love. I’m not sure if Coppola has one in her I’ll love outright. Yet I still think she has vision and am always excited when one of her features makes its theatrical rounds. Dutifully, I went with my friend Cassandra to see Somewhere the weekend it was finally released in Austin. The Virgin Suicides comes the closest to being a movie I love, though at least one friend argues that her adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel is misogynistic. Lost In Translation would be even closer to my favorite. I think Bill Murray is astounding and really appreciate the tenderness between the semi-platonic leads. However, while I recognize that language barriers are frustrating to all parties in that movie, I still think its baseless racial politics are going to age like Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 50 years. I think the first half of Marie Antoinette is her best work and has a fascinating soundtrack, but is hamstrung by Kirsten Dunst’s failure to convey emotional maturation.
Also, we simply don’t have a lot of accomplished female American filmmakers. Do I wish this were different? Of course I do. Do I think it’s my duty to seek out and comment on their work? Why do you think I put together the Bechdel Test Canon? Do I revere the work of Sofia Coppola? Reread the first two sentences of this post. Would she have an Oscar if she weren’t a Coppola? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean I begrudge her success. Because until I don’t have to outline the entire filmography of a female director who directed episodes for shows like The L Word, Sex and the City, Gilmore Girls, or Mad Men to stay in the game when someone asks “who’s Jamie Babbit?,” Coppola’s film career shouldn’t be disregarded out of hand. Regrettably or not, it’s exceptional.
I stress that Coppola’s vision doesn’t belong to her brother Roman or papa Francis. Like Stephanie Zacharek, I reject people’s assertions that she’s Veruca Salt or that men are responsible for her film career. If we want to mount the argument that Coppola is stealing from her father or Italian neorealism with Somewhere and has nothing original to offer, I’ll point out that cinematographer Harris Savides shot it. He also filmed Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. Both pictures were shot in Los Angeles by the same person and exist in the present yet look very different from one another.
I also think Coppola has something to say about growing up female. Yes, she’s addressing a particular kind of femininity. She is concerned with white, heterosexual women and girls gilded with privilege–except maybe the Lisbon girls, who are part of a single-income family supported by a school teacher’s salary. Sure, we have every reason to critique the construction of such limited representations. But I don’t necessarily have a problem with people writing and directing what they know. If Coppola adapted Winter’s Bone, completed a version of Tipping the Velvet that the rumor mill attached her a few years ago, or wrote a script about a girl who goes to a Los Angeles private school on scholarship, the same detractors would hate all of these hypothetical efforts. Also, her taciturn characters still possess contours, layers, and ambiguity. Her movies aren’t filled with great people. They don’t or can’t always say what they’re thinking or react in a heroic fashion. Sometimes they can’t react at all.
This might be really frustrating to some audience members and all the gilding might make it harder to relate. I recognize many of the criticisms Dan Kois, June Thomas, and Dana Stevens mounted against Somewhere in a recent installment of The Culture Gabfest. However, Thomas believes Somewhere will destroy American cinema. I think Wes Anderson’s twee influence ruined it first. Kois quotes from Richard Rushfield’s Daily Beast piece on the movie, stating that in films, a $500 silk shirt was once “evident shorthand for the participation of evil” but is now worn by the protagonist. I’d argue that this criticism obscures some of the shallow, regressive identity politics evident in the canonical texts of the French New Wave and the American Movie Renaissance.
I’m also unconvinced that protagonist Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), an A-list action star whose daughter visits him while hiding out in the Chateau Marmont, is supposed to be sympathetic. Though the movie doesn’t make this case, I read him to be a terrible person. My understanding of him is informed by a recent slog through Anthony Kiedis’ Scar Tissue, a numbing rock biography that overuses the word “soulful” and reads as a long list of beaches, clinics, drugs, and interchangeable women. Coppola appears in exactly one paragraph. She was involved with the Red Hot Chili Peppers front man long enough to watch them on Saturday Night Live. I’m not sure what to make of Coppola’s depiction of Marco’s bevy of unnamed women who constantly perform and wear embarrassing accessories like sailor hats to excite Marco’s libido. I’d chalk it up to misogyny, but Kiedis’ book suggests that some men–famous or otherwise–really are this shallow.
Coppola’s smart not to write Dorff as an obvious jerk. We can read his bad boy Gen X persona and the vase-throwing cameo in a Britney Spears video into his performance, but Dorff’s Marco is a nice guy. He’s affable and obedient with the press, his handlers, and the strange girls who are always in his room. He got the job simply because he’s a handsome guy who can fill out a tank top. This is subtextual in a brief exchange with a young actor looking for career advice–a scenario I could see Taylor Lautner in at the end of this decade. Yet the unintended moral of Scar Tissue is that the worst kind of bad boy celebrity feigns sensitivity but ultimately lacks the mental or emotional strength to keep good women in their families. To charm is not necessarily to beguile, but to beguile is ultimately to betray. Marco’s ex Layla learns that off-screen. I imagine their daughter Cleo (the remarkable Elle Fanning) did as well.
Yet, for all the bluster and contrarianism that set up this post, I still wasn’t enthralled with Somewhere. I’m fine with the space and silence and boredom of it. I love how editor Sarah Flack lets some scenes play out too long and bluntly abbreviates others. For a quiet movie from a director who uses music (and music supervisor Brian Reitzell) to convey meaning and demonstrate coolness, I appreciate their decision to play out pop songs through stationary cameras instead of employ music video editing. Marco is entertained by twin pole dancers (Kristina and Karissa Shannon) on two occasions. One routine involves candy striper uniforms and the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero.” The other is to Amerie’s “1 Thing” and employs tennis outfits to comic effect. The empty glamor and tedium of fame is best captured in the aural and visual components of these scenes. Yet this is a tired point, and I don’t know what Coppola has to say about celebrity.
Also, for a movie indebted to Italian neorealism, can I just point out that Cleo has entirely too many clothes to fit into her tiny suitcase? I think she wears one sweater twice. Doesn’t scan. Just sayin’, wardrobe department.
The ending to this movie vexes me as well. If I’m right to dislike Marco, the final scene confirms my feelings that he can’t grow as a person. If I’m meant to believe he’s capable of redemption, then Coppola made a mistake. She should have stranded him at the hotel after dropping Cleo off at summer camp. The movie “resolves” with Marco abandoning his luxury car on the side of the road. Sure, he’s walking away from the trappings of fame. But he’s also walking away from his responsibilities as a parent, failing to absorb the meaning of the time he shared with his daughter. Cleo, like Frances Bean, is largely left to raise herself. I bet both of them whip up a mean Eggs Benedict.
But I do think the movie offers up something interesting about the tenuous nature of father-daughter relationships. My favorite scene in the movie underlines it, and Zacharek interprets beautifully in her review. Marco watches Cleo rehearse a figure skating routine set to Gwen Stefani’s “Cool.” I conceptualize the selection as an oldie to Cleo. Perhaps it’s akin to Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet,” which was a staple at drill team recitals growing up. Though it’s another female performance Marco watches, the intended benefit is probably for the performer instead of the spectator. On the car ride back to the hotel, his daughter will inform him that she’s been taking lessons for three years. But in this moment, he witnesses her talent and realizes they don’t know one another very well. This scene killed me. I wish I could find it, but here’s the music video.
I cried in part because this year I approach my ten-year high school reunion and, with it, the anniversary of my estrangement from my father. As this scene played out on-screen, I thought about how, as a previous version of himself, he’d fly to Houston to see all my silly school musicals. For the most part, he was a good dad between marriages and was concerned to a fault over me becoming the best version of myself. Of my parents, dad was the movie-goer and made his living as a writer. At an early age, he got me excited about cinema and encouraged me to articulate my opinions about what I experienced, so he definitely would have accompanied me to Somewhere. As an only child to parents who tried really hard to create me, I take a perverse comfort in knowing that if things turned out differently between us he would have championed my writing as ardently as my mother does.
But more than that, I cried because this is ultimately a moment of acceptance between two people. Despite genetics and an easy way with one another crafted by the actors spending quality time together during rehearsal, they aren’t quite family. It’s a point made clear in song selection and masterfully executed by cast and crew. I think Coppola empathizes with all sides. Because Marco might have less to do with her father or brother or boyfriend and may be a manifestation of the director’s concerns about herself and the world her daughters will inherit. Somewhere is a meditation on the awkwardness in forging a parent-child relationship. Coppola doesn’t quite make something transcendent out of it, but she makes yet another beautiful picture that by turns floors and frustrates me.
At lunch the other day, Kristen at Act Your Age and I got on the subject of music videos, as we are wont to do. We were talking about instances where artists play multiple characters in clips, which brought to mind this entry on Beyoncé and Bat for Lashes. We could only come up with female artists, though my partner also brought up OutKast’s “Hey Ya” and The Foo Fighters’ “Learn To Fly.” I’d point out that the former seems to only be possible because Andre 3000 had already established himself as an eccentric, feminizable fashion icon though I wonder if any women — besides ex Erykah Badu, who directly referenced “Hey Ya” in “Honey” — has played an entire band. I also have to say that the latter showcases regressive stereotypes of girls, homosexual man, and fat women. Yikes!
In Jennifer Lopez’s “Get Right” she plays pretty much every character: the club deejay, a bartender, a dancer, a clubgoer trying to dance away her heartache, her friend, a celebrity, the celebrity’s nerdy (and potentially queerable) fan, and the video star projected on the club’s screens. She also appears to be playing outside her race at times, inhabiting white characters as well as Latinas. Oh, and fun fact: the girl playing the deejay’s kid sister as actually Lopez’s stepdaughter Ariana. Click on J.Lo’s name to watch.
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker” recycles the played-out good girl-blonde/bad girl-brunette binary, but I like that she also gets to recreate the “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” scene in Grease and that there’s an animated version of herself that both characters watch at the movies.
Mariah Carey featuring Jay-Z
Directed by Brett Ratner
Britney Spears — who has put on multiple aliases in “Toxic” and “Womanizer” — also brings out the blonde/brunette binary for “Gimme More.” However, I find it interesting that blonde Spears is at a strip club with girlfriends and is watching brunette Spears perform as club talent.
Directed by Jake Sarfaty