The other day, I came back from my lunch break and noticed Angelina Anderson (I Fry Mine in Butter founder and author of Bitch‘s Snarky’s Cinemachine series; @SnarkysMachine in the Twittersphere) posted the trailer to Burlesque, a new star vehicle for Christina Aguilera and Cher. With its flat acting, rote cinematography, and hackneyed storyline about a dew-eyed girl makin’ it in the entertainment biz, it looks — as Anderson said on Facebook — like Chicago, Glitter, Showgirls, and Moulin Rouge collided. I’ll totally see this on some listless Sunday. If it’s really good, I’ll buy it at discount and watch it with drunk friends late at night, having the movie occupy a position held by Glitter and Center Stage. Why?
1. I’m a sucker for dance movies.Put simply, I love watching dancers interact with cameras and editors. That means I own Center Stage and You Got Served. That means I saw Rize and Save the Last Dance, among others, in the theaters. That means I’ll defend Robert Altman’s The Company beyond the merits of my partner’s uncle’s work as its production designer or Neve Campbell and James Franco’s underplayed chemistry. That means I took an entire graduate course on dance in media culture and wrote my final paper on the employment of dance in Spike Lee’s first three films. That means I support the validity of Irin Camron’s claims toward Dirty Dancing‘s feminist potential. That means I’ll see Step Up‘s 3D installment. That means I saw all the movies Anderson compared Burlesque to, Bob Fosse’s entire filmography, and even sat through Honey, which Missy Elliott’s cameo saved from Jessica Alba’s dependably bland titular performance.
2. I’m a sucker for backstage musicals, and have been at least since I participated in a high school production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, but probably as far back as when I saw a community theater production of Gypsy with my grandmother as a child. I derive pleasure from stories of people putting on a show. I like witnessing how a character’s personal life informs their performance. And as a genre, I’m interested in why so many offerings focus on young women’s rise to fame.
3. I’m intrigued by female pop stars’ involvement in film musicals, particularly as it offers roles to women of color. Yes, Kylie Minogue played the Green Fairy in Moulin Rouge and Fergie was cast in Rob Marshall’s Nine. It’s especially interesting to see these women play influential female performers in music biopics as a means of linking personas and legacies. Diana Ross did this with Billie Holiday and Beyoncé connected herself to Diana Ross and Etta James. Jennifer Lopez’s career took off after a star turn in Selena. But many get involved with musicals and dance films. Beyoncé also starred in MTV’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera. Marshall also employed Queen Latifah in Chicago, who was later cast in Hairspray. Mentor Whitney Houston and protegee Brandy paired up for Cinderella. I could catalogue indefinitely, as pop stars’ involvement with a film musical has long served as shorthand for pop credibility and crossover success.
4. I’m fascinated by the perennial employment of cinematic vanity projects to expand pop stars’ brands. It’s usually quite a gamble. For every Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon is sure to follow. It failed spectacularly in Mariah Carey’s case, with Glitter entering the market when the singer’s waning cultural relevance dovetailed with a well-publicized psychological breakdown and only recently being remembered as a fun but inconsequential movie about a girl becoming an 80s pop icon based on a killer recording of “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On.” In point of fact, I actually find the derided attempts far more interesting as a viewer and in terms of what they may say about the stars at their center.
Burlesque meets each of these four points. I’m nervous about Aguilera’s underripe performance, exaggerated whiteness, bad wig, and the possibility that the movie underlines her limited dance ability over her formidable singing. I’m also curious how the movie might recall OutKast’s Idlewild. Both movies employ a deliberating retro musical sensibility, though I think Aguilera is far more invested in conjuring a postmodern pin-up image than Andre 3000 and Big Boi were in associating themselves with the Prohibition. I’m excited to see Cher, who I liked in Moonstruck, The Witches of Eastwick and Mermaids growing up and will probably enjoy in Come Back to the Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean when I finally get around to seeing it. Plus any movie with Stanley Tucci gets a free pass from me. It won’t be great, but it’ll probably be fun.
Recently Logan Hill contributed a piece for Vulture on the invigoration of music video production on the Internet following a dry spell for the medium on television. Of course, folks have noted this as YouTube, Vimeo, Vevo, and a host of other clip-sharing sites became ubiquitous alongside MTV’s continued programming choices to inundate their audience with reality shows. The network recently took “Music Television” out of its logo. For a moment, it seemed like DVD collections like Palm Pictures’ Directors Label series would step in and make music videos more available to the public, but clearly the Internet has won, even invigorating the careers of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry.
While I don’t see this move as little more than a shift indicative of how we consume media, I would also like to point out that many of these headline-grabbing Internet sensation music videos are notable for another reason. The scandal and celebrity associated with these big-budget clips center on female pop stars. In the past year, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Shakira, Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu, and M.I.A. have made garnered attention and controversy with clips inundated with sexual and/or violent imagery that might not fly on post-network television but keep the blogoshere typing, Tweeting, and uploading. Alongside those artists, fringe acts like Peaches, Yo! Majesty, and Gossip — all peopled by queer musicians — have garnered some recognition for their work.
On the surface, the presence female pop stars have in reviving the music video format also recalls MTV’s nascence. Many note that the first clip the network aired was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” But Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” followed it, along with a whole host of female pop stars who battled rock acts and hair metal bands for programming supremacy. The Go-Go’s, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Eurythmics’ lead singer Annie Lennox all catapulted to stardom during the network’s infancy, as art rock acts like Kate Bush also received some stateside recognition.
While the current stable of video stars seem to subvert conventional femininity by playing with camp and excess, I’m actually inclined to read many of these artists as ultimately normative. Many of the video narratives, regardless of costuming or cultural references, tend to rehash contrived narratives about young women getting rowdy in the club and letting her (hetero)sexual inhibitions run wild. I believe Badu’s “Window Seat” and M.I.A.’s “Born Free” challenge these offerings however, by either making female nudity at once mundane and endangered or by dispensing of the female pop star altogether to focus on government-sanctioned ultraviolence. Monáe’s approach might be the most refreshing as she recontextualizes rock and R&B’s cultural origins within a female body covered up in menswear that’s ready to teach you some new dance steps.
In addition, many of these musical artists are working with established male video directors. Gaga revived the career of Jonas Åkerlund, who originally made a name for himself working with Madonna. While it’s easy to read these directors as auteurs, I’m inclined to point out that some of them have established collaborative relationships with these women across several projects. This also recalls how Gondry came into the cultural lexicon. While we may now think of him as the visionary behind White Stripes videos and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, an Icelandic pop star named Björk selected him to direct his first English-language music video after years working in France. The clip was for “Human Behaviour,” which launched both of their careers in the states.
I’d like to bring up in the current emergence of female pop stars on the Internet is that almost all of them are solo artists taking sole focus on big-budget music videos. While I don’t want to suggest that these women are not musicians, or overlook the fact that Beyoncé tours with an all-female backing band, I find it disheartening that we aren’t seeing as many images of women and girls creating video images as collaborators, whether between female artists and directors, as members of a band, or female artists who collaborate with one another. While Lady Gaga and Beyoncé have been known to work together, as have M.I.A. and Santigold, it would be nice to see more music videos with a group of women or girls as the focus.
Likewise, I also find it frustrating that so many of these big productions have to be so moneyed, most notably Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone.” Perhaps a new group of bands and musical artists in collaboration with one another will also make names for themselves as music videos continue to thrive on the Internet. Who says you need a big budget and an iconic pop star to make a clip for the ages?
Hello, everyone. Friday is upon us and today’s “Tuning In” entry is on the new Christina Aguilera music video for “Not Myself Tonight.”
The first half of 2010 has been eventful for music, hasn’t it? Epic break-up albums from Spoon, Joanna Newsom, Erykah Badu, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Controversial music videos from Lady Gaga, Badu, and M.I.A. Janelle Monáe cornering the “Hey Ya” market with “Tightrope.” The initial run of David Simon’s Treme, which is a feast for music geeks. Courtney Love re-emerging like some fucked-up phoenix rising from the ashes of coke and pixie dust. Corin Tucker making a solo album. The Lilith Fair relaunching this summer, though unfortunately at one point in support of anti-choice brainwashing complexes crisis pregnancy centers. Christina Aguilera collaborating with some interesting folks on her new album. And so many amazing album covers. Goddamn.
By my count, we have four new covers to talk about: the Dap-Kings’ I Learned the Hard Way, Hole’s Nobody’s Daughter, Monáe’s soon-to-be-released The ArchAndroid, and Aguilera’s Bionic. As I want to write proper reviews for the first three titles, I figured today’s post could be on D*Face‘s cover art for Bionic, which doesn’t come out until June. I’ll admit that I’m pretty nervous that I don’t see Santigold, M.I.A., and Le Tigre listed as producers on the album’s Wiki entry. While I do note Ladytron, I’ll also point out that it’s the dudes in the band who worked with her. The lead single “Not Myself Tonight,” has been released and I like it even if it’s slipping on the charts. The Hype Williams-directed video is set to premiere on Vevo tomorrow, though you can look at snippets and stills from the singer’s Web site. The cover was revealed last month and to whet our appetites, I thought we could briefly look at it.
Haters can say that the lead single is derivative, but that’s one hell of a cover. Admittedly, the critique is pretty close to the surface: the cover shows the obscured constructedness of pop stars, the technological interventions on their voices and bodies, and the potential disembodiment of normative and subservient female glamor. I’d also bring up Richard Dyer’s call in White to make whiteness strange. It also seems to recall Daft Punk’s politically dire and underrated Human After All and the corporate shills and politicians in They Live.
As I mentioned in my review of Badu’s new album linked above, the cyborg — and the cyborg as doll — is a racially fraught cultural figure that black women have channeled in their work, particularly Missy Elliott and Lil Kim. I’d add Monáe and Nicki Minaj (channeling Kim) to that list.
I’d also point out that Björk and Chris Cunningham challenged the racial and sexual connotations of the cyborg in the music video for “All Is Full Of Love.”
I’m not convinced that Aguilera has done anything new here, but continue to be interested with whom and what she chooses to align.
So, by now we probably all know that Christina Aguilera’s got a new album coming out this spring. It’s called Bionic, which is as rad a title as any. I consider myself a Christina fan, and have enjoyed watching her develop as a singer. And I thought Back to Basics, while overlong, was a lot of fun. Do we all need to watch the “Candyman” music video she co-directed with Matthew Rolston to jog our memories? Okay.
But while I’ve got Bionic on my radar, the folks she’s collaborated with is what really fills me with anticipation. She’s worked with rad ladies like M.I.A., Santigold, and post-riot grrrl icons Le Tigre. If she could bring in artists like Björk, one of her favorite singers, or Gossip, my head might explode. I’m anticipating some tough, glossy electroclash and I hope I get it. While I’m not sure what the album sounds like and do hold some reservations, I’m excited that Le Tigre have been back at work after their hiatus. Also I do think this collaboration is important.
Sure, indie music’s cross-pollinations with commercial fare in the recent past are well-documented. If this applies to big-name producers like Lukasz Gottwald, it certainly applies to lesser-known talent who might be able to lend a certain caché. Remember when LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy tried to produce a Britney Spears single? Hell, remember the rumor that Kathleen Hanna was going to serve as one of the many producers of Paris Hilton’s inauspicious debut? Yeah, we’ve been doing this for a while.
But how often do independent and mainstream female artists work together? How many superstar pop singers espouse even remotely feminist values that could jibe with Le Tigre’s politics (besides P!nk and maybe Lady Gaga)? How many pop stars even claim “Deceptacon” to be one of their jams? And while Mariah Carey liked Hole’s Live Through This, I like that Aguilera actually went in to the studio with these artists. I’ll reserve judgement on the music until I hear a final product, but I respect the professional motivations of all parties. I also look forward to hearing the results, especially if they’re built for the dance floor.