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.
Last weekend, I went home to visit my parents. Little did I know I’d encounter multiple texts that would foreground Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” an amazing song I have yet to hear incorporated properly into a movie.
The first text was Jaap Kooijman’s “Triumphant Black Pop Divas on the Wide Screen: Lady Sings the Blues and Tina: What’s Love Got to Do With It“. This is an essay on black pop stars and music biopics that was printed in Popular Music and Film and was recommended to me by Mabel, an acquaintance of mine through the UT RTF Department. Kooijman’s piece is especially interesting to me in terms of biopics prey upon spectators’ pre-existent fandom and must adhere to traditional narrative conventions of individual redemption and triumph regardless of actual experience.
With both Lady Sings the Blues and What’s Love Got To Do With It?, these movies also obscured certain key elements in order to proclaim (and exploit) the black female pop star’s marketability. In Lady, Holiday’s personal tragedy is neatly bypassed to ensure star Diana Ross’s commercial viability as an actress, singer, and product. With Love, actress Angela Bassett’s performance as Tina Turner is overshadowed by the singer’s presence on the soundtrack and in the movie’s final image.
Kooijman also touches on the scene in Lady where Holiday witnesses black Southerners mourning a lynching victim while on tour and is “inspired” by what she sees (note: “Strange Fruit” was actually written by Abel Meeropol). As a fan of Holiday’s but not of Sidney J. Furie’s 1972 feature, I side with James Baldwin on this scene, who Kooijman sites to bolster his claim that the scene treats racism as an isolated occurence in Holiday’s life. Baldwin believed the scene to be remote and rife with pious horror and gratified reassurance.
Agreed. It was actually at about this point that I turned off Lady for similar reasons when I saw it. The factual inaccuracy, romantic distance from the subject, and emphasis on Ross’s adequate performance annoyed me enough preceding this icky moment.
Then once I settled in at my parents’ house, what should come on cable but Adrian Lyne’s 1986 feature 9 1/2 Weeks? I’ve been thinking about this misogynist’s wet dream for a while now and thought to revisit it. I saw it once with my mom (!) some time during college. Even prior to a background in feminist film theory or quality time with Susan Faludi’s Backlash, I knew this movie was bad for womankind. I was interested in the soundtrack, which primarily consistents of cold Europop and boasts John Taylor’s Bowie-damaged “I Do What I Do” as its theme.
For those not immediately familiar, the quintessentially 80s “erotic thriller” was based on Elizabeth McNeill’s novel of same name and documents the brief but torrid affair between SoHo gallery employee Elizabeth McGraw (Kim Basinger) and Wall Street hotshot John Grey (Mickey Rourke, in a performance that blew away Robert Downey Jr. but set me up to hate Diner and The Wrestler, even if I think his soulful eyes and quiet voice are disturbingly effective here), who prods her into increasingly debasing activities until she says uncle. It actually didn’t do well at the box office but found its home in late-night cable programming, where it apparently still resides.
This movie made many feminists angry. It also prompted Roger Ebert to side with it as a parable of sexual responsibility, which makes this feminist angrier. Because much of how I receive 9 1/2 Weeks is in recognition that Lyne manipulated Basinger in cruel ways on set and at one point allowed Rourke to hit her in order to get the performance he wanted. So I read this as insulting to the actress’s ability and a horrifying parallel to what we see transpire on screen.
I bring up this movie because Grey uses “Strange Fruit” to set his plans for seduction in motion. He plays the song for her in an early attempt to set the mood. It fails, though she continues to come back until she draws the line at being pushed into a threesome with Grey and a hooker (I shudder as I type). To think about these two glamorous white people beginning to embark on sexual warfare in vast spaces appointed by luxurious minimalism as this song plays on a stereo system probably bought from some fancy electronics store makes my blood curdle. Clearly Grey is missing the point with this song. But unless they’re honoring the source material, Lyne and his music department were commiting a far more grevious error in its inclusion.
For financial reasons, I was only able to swing one day of Fun Fun Fun Fest so I’m blogging while many in this fair city are catching some good music in Waterloo Park. Although, admittedly, if you’re gonna do one day of the festival, I think yesterday was the way to go. I got to check several bands I’ve never seen before off my list: No Age (who I’ve missed by a marrow margin at least three times), Jesus Lizard, Pharcyde, Les Savy Fav, and Death.
But if you have the scratch, please make sure everyone sees one of Mika Miko’s last shows ever on the black stage at 2:55. I might try to get down there later just to hear it from the other side of the fence.
Mika Miko’s exceptional presence on this year’s bill seems as good a place as any to remember that, as Melissa at GRCA astutely pointed out in her recent post, this year boasts a very dudecentric line-up. So I’ll review Jacqueline Warwick’s book Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s book in the hopes that at least one historically significant girl group or all-female band will reunite for next year’s FFFF like Death did this year. And like the Shangri-Las did at CBGB’s in 1977.
As much as I hate comparing women’s work so as to pit them in opposition, Warwick’s book is a tremendous example of how effective it can be to narrow the scope of the cultural moment being covered, something I wish Charlotte Greig would have considered when penning her book on girl groups. While Greig truncates the history of the girl group era in order to broaden the definition of what a girl group is, Warwick focuses primarily on this brief but important moment in history (roughly between 1958 and 1965), considering its ongoing influence as an epilogue.
By taking this approach, Warwick considers the girl group era and its participants from several different, often surprising, areas of inquiry. As a result, she proves the cultural signficance of a popular form dismissed by many as superficial, polished, and phony who instead tend to favor rock music’s supposed transcendent raw authenticity, and argues strongly that this binary construction is inherently gendered. Duh, and amen.
Warwick posits that one of the most important things about the girl group era was its insistence on putting girls and young women in the spotlight, introducing a complex, celebratoryn and at times contradictory performance of what the author calls “girlness”. Often, these ladies were working class, and of African American or mixed racial and ethnic heritage. They had few options for financial mobility and minimal career prospects being marriage, motherhood, clerical jobs, and day labor. Forming vocal groups together and cutting records gave them access to other opportuntities toward professional advancement and personal growth, expanding the idea of girlhood as an identity across race and class lines.
Sometimes these groupings resulted in the cultivation of considerable, devoted fan bases that, in The Supremes and The Ronnettes’ cases, were comparable to Beatlemania. Some of those fans were even other male-only rock bands, like The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and later, The Ramones. Take that, pop-rock, girl-boy binaries!
In other words, I’m telling you to read this book.
One thing I appreciate about Warwick’s book from the outset is the celebration of the female voice. As I’ve long believed and argued extensively in this blog, we cannot give short-shrift to singers. While they can assuredly be tokenized and objectified, but they can also be empowered, embodied, and forge their own agency. Heartenly, she finds much going on with the voice, a distinct instrument no matter how it may have been manipulated or homogenized by label owners like Motown’s Barry Gordy and producers like Phil Spector and his overwhelming wall of sound. She hears the genteel precision of Diana Ross’s soprano, the urgent purr of Ronnie Spector’s husky alto, the untrained wavering of Shirelle Shirley Owens’s pitch, the gutteral inflections on Supreme Florence Ballard’s tone, the put-on nasal affectations of Broadway-trained groups like The Angels, the racial dimensions of Dusty Springfield’s blue-eyed soul, and the teenaged monotone of Shangri-La Mary Weiss.
She also hears these girls singing to one another, often in their own forms of feminine dialect and for the purposes of providing support and advice. On record, acts like The Dixie Cups, The Crystals, Betty Everett, and The Velvelettes would pepper their songs with seemingly nonsensical words and phrases like “iko iko,” “da doo ron ron,” “shoop,” and “doo lang doo lang,” often provided by backing vocalists as a means of support for the lead vocalist, who might be intimating her feelings about burgeoning romance or her conflicted feelings in the aftermath of a break-up.
Often, these girls were providing one another moral support and providing advice as well. While Warwick notes that advice songs tended to be the domain of girl groups with African American members like The Velvelettes, The Shirelles, The Chiffons, and The Marvelettes, they often imparted wisdom to their audiences that they learned from their mothers or their sisters, as well as sharing what they’ve learned from their own experiences. In doing so, these songs provided a counterargument to the assertion that girl groups only sang about boys and also expanded female discourse in popular music by including the words and experiences of generations of women into then present-day pop songs by girls.
It cannot be ignored that while many girl group songs were written by men, not all of them were. As mentioned elsewhere, Brill Building stalwarts like Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich, and Carole King were of paramount importance to the era. Many of these women, like Greenwich, wrote about seemingly teenage issues like young love and treated it as legitimate, at times giving it life-and-death importance, as she did on The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack.”
King is a particularly interesting case as well. Before striking out on her own as a solo artist, she wrote many important songs for girl groups. Some songs, like The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” address the troubling and dangerous aspects of patriarchy and oppression, and have been covered to harrowing effect by bands like Hole and Grizzly Bear.
Other songs King penned gesture toward the era’s prescience regarding shifting cultural attitudes toward feminism, female agency, and sexual autonomy, as on The Shirelles’ anthemic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”
Girl groups were also clearly singing with one another, as girl groups often were comprised of siblings and relatives who wore matching outfits and performed intricate choreography to suggest that these girls were a unit, despite at times having clearly defined lead singers and stars who (especially in Diana Ross’s case) were thin and had a more conventional look and sound.
It was this image coordination that made The Ronnettes able to ingratiate night clubs when they were underaged, gave them the confidence to perform at those night clubs, and provided them with a sense of belonging that made them tough enough to brave any New York City street. It also makes this sense of actual or engineered sisterhood and camderadie seem especially fragile when success encroaches on it, as the tragic dimensions of Estelle Bennett and Florence Ballard‘s post-girl group lives remind.
Warwick shies from making any explicitly queer connections to girl groups beyond passing references to Springfield and Lesley Gore’s orientations and their relationships with the closet. I would have liked a bit more discussion of the queer dynamics of the groups’ homosocial bonding both on- and off-record. A brief appraisal of queer fandom (seemingly most pronounced among certain circles of gay men, though not exclusively) would also have been appreciated.
That said, I do appreciate Warwick reminding her readers of girl groups’ continued impact. As this is the section of the book that gets less focus, it would be worthwhile to read Warwick’s and Greig’s books together to get a larger sense of how punk, hip hop, and contemporary pop music were influenced by girl groups.
I would hasten to add country music to the list of genres that were shaped by this era. Given last night’s Saturday Night Live, which featured crossover star Taylor Swift as both host and musical guest (a rare opportunity for most pop stars, unless they are Justin or Britney). Watching her play a brace-faced teenager in a skit about parents who are worse drivers than their kids and her performance of “You Belong To Me” complete with careful, song-appropriate gestures, it was clear to me that the girl group era continues. As Mika Miko performs one of their last shows later today, I’ll wonder where it’ll permeate next.
Today in The Root, Dayo Olopade posited that the pop star set to inherit Michael Jackson’s mantle as the King of Pop is Beyoncé Knowles. And my girl Kristen (who of course pointed me to the article in the first place) asked for people’s thoughts on this assertion. Here now is my effort.
Obviously, no opinion can be reached without mention of how important Michael Jackson was to people. While I can be snide and agree with others that he hadn’t made a good album since 1987’s Bad, I also won’t pretend to know how deep an impact he made on generations of African Americans and what it was like to see a young black man launch into that kind of mythology. Even if you’re Chuck D and you made the point that having MTV air the music video for “Billie Jean” in 1983 nearly 20 years after Jackson broke into the mainstream as part of The Jackson 5 was an achievement for white America (a point Chuck makes in The History of Rock and Roll) I don’t know if you can qualify how particularly and specifically important Michael Jackson is to generations of African Americans. And Beyoncé was born in 1981. Indeed, she didn’t exist before Michael. So I definitely think his impact on her — along with several other African American pop stars — is monumental and different from their white counterparts. Thus, I’m absolutely fine with Cord Jefferson’s assertion that Justin Timberlake cannot inherit Jackson’s legacy. Let Beyoncé wear the damn military jacket.
Yet, while I feel that the Beyoncé as successor story is really compelling in theory, I wonder if it works. As many people have argued, including Olopade, we may have witnessed, with the death of Michael Jackson, the end of superstardom. And while others might disagree, I think this is a good thing, as I feel that a life lived in quotes, italics, and all caps only ends up ruining the body and mind living the persona(e). It may be captivating, or even aspirational to the general public, but it also seems hollow, empty, lonely, and unfulling to the person. It also seems too taxing to keep up. Listen to Jackson’s songs, as his lyrics became increasingly paranoid. Look at Neverland. Look at the increasingly desperate music videos that could never replicate the magic of “Thriller.” Witness the body in a constant state of mutation, decay, whitening, and plasticity. As Michael aged, the man in the mirror must have become more alien to himself. Absenting a larger discussion about looming rumors of child molestation and a confirmed history of child abuse and exhausting work conditions administered by his father, Joe, I cannot help but view what happened to Michael as a perilous lesson at how cruel and unfulfilling that level of fame is. The high price is assuredly the self.
To me, if we want to go with a model for how Michael’s fame warped any semblance of a personal life and informed his music, the more accurate analog is Britney Spears, a young woman formed into a hologram for our society’s distorted desires, started rebelling and making commentary on her fame, who we watched collapse, villified and mocked for making poor decisions, took offense to the havoc the stress of fame and vanity wreaked on her body, and whose untimely death will assuredly be met by a dumbfounded mass. She may live past 27, but I’m not sure that her attempts at normalcy and privacy won’t be as ill-informed and unfortunate as Jackson’s were.
Beyoncé, on the other hand, seems to carve out an autonomous private life for herself as best she can. To that end, I actually think she has more in common with Michael’s sister, Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty. While both have suffered speculation and public battles with body image and weight fluctuation, I also think they were aware of their popularity, reticent to embrace it as a result of their shyness and self-possession, and made an effort to keep some of themselves to themselves. Beyoncé may collaborate with her husband Jay-Z, but they rarely disclose any personal information beyond the occasional outing to a Knicks’ or a Nets’ game or reference to their relationship in song (I seem to remember the mid-2000s being a hard time for the power couple to balance love with work — they seem to have made it to the other side without us knowing too much about their private goings-on).
Likewise, Jackson has taken privacy to perhaps necessary extremes, hiding her entire marriage to René Elizondo from the public until she announced their divorce in 1999. She’s since been in a long-term relationship with rapper-mogul Jermaine Dupri which may or may not culminate in marriage. I kind of like that I don’t know. Maybe it’s the Protestant in me, but I’m not as interested in their personal lives as I am with their work. Of course, how one informs the other is tremendously useful and important to me. But I like that both women have given themselves the space not to have the factoids of their love lives be common knowledge.
These women’s effort to separate the public from private life is reflected in their music. While Olopade states that Beyoncé asserts the confidence that Michael lacked, I don’t think you have to look any further than Janet to find similarities. Thus, I think that while Michael’s influence as a pop star is not to be ignored, neither can his sister’s. As assuredly as Michael’s innovative music, kinetic movements, and larger-than-life persona inspired Beyoncé, I get the feeling that Janet’s no-nonsense, pro-woman, and at times politically charged anthems left quite an impression as well.
Another point I’d like to challenge is the idea that Michael Jackson was born a monolithic pop star and was the first of his kind. He evolved into a pop star over time. To that end, he also modeled himself on other pop stars, icons, and musicians. As Madonna did with Mae West and Marilyn Monroe, as Tina Turner did with Mick Jagger, and as many after them will continue to do, Michael modeled himself after pop stars of his time. Obviously, Motown, the birthplace of his career, left quite an impression on him. Diana Ross, specifically, became his mentor and model for how to be a pop star. While some catty folks may argue that Michael took the admiration too far, in effect trying to turn himself into her, “whitening” his features and taking on her soft voice, I don’t think we can discuss how assimilable Michael Jackson or Diana Ross (or Motown in the 1960s) was without getting into a larger discussion about the control predominantly white people in positions of power in the culture industries have in enforcing what supposedly white perceptions of what popular music should look and sound like.
Beyoncé has had to face similar instances of institutional racism and assimiliation. She often bleaches and straightens her hair, has witnessed multiple magazines Photoshop inches off her curves, and has shed pounds for movie roles. Beyoncé is also clearly inspired by Ross. Her first group, Destiny’s Child, were clear heiresses to The Supremes’ girl-group legacy. Similar to Ross, Beyoncé broke out on her own, becoming a definitive diva for her era. And adding another layer, Beyoncé played Ross’s avatar in Dreamgirls (for which she lost a considerable amount of weight).
We could then argue, via the Jackson-inspired dance break in the music video for Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylious,” that Beyoncé is placing herself in a continuum between Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.
Like Michael and Ross, Beyoncé has worked in movies. And while some people may want to scoff at her film career, I think the range and variety of Beyoncé’s filmography is interesting and helps open up what a pop star can do. She’s been in summer blockbusters like Austin Powers in Goldmember. She’s been in campy, racially charged suspense thrillers like Obsessed (which I haven’t seen, but dear God I hope she cuts that white girl). She’s also been in Dreamgirls and Cadillac Records, playing either fictionalized or real female musicians. (Note: She got to put on weight when she played Etta James in Cadillac Records, a movie I’m sorry to have missed in the theaters but expect a later post about it — gotta support African American female directors like Darnell Martin). But she isn’t only playing the singer.
Beyoncé’s foray into acting, coupled with her recent stint as The Gloved One 2.0 (aka Sasha Fierce) also speaks to her ability to self-fragment, using this tactic to showcase multiple, often contradictory versions of the female self. Which I think speaks to her feminist camp potential as well. Her music videos are sexy and provocative, but always with a wink, always tongue-in-cheek, whether she’s referencing Basic Instinct, riding a mechanical bull, rolling a hula hoop, or channeling Robert Palmer.
But while it might suggest a commonality with Madonna (one of the few pop stars to rival Michael Jackson’s stardom in the 1980s), I think Beyoncé’s campiness is singular. Principally, she channels her camp through humor. She’s really funny. Not a lot of pop stars get to be (or allow themselves to be) truly funny. A song like “Irreplaceble” stings with so much camp wit, and there are many others (the woman has her own vocabulary and phraseology). And, ever the shrewd businesswoman, she can use any song to its full synergistic potential. The guy in “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” is holding her tighter than her Deréon jeans, after all.
So, while it’s important to think about Michael Jackson and Beyoncé, I see their cultural relationship less as an issue of successorship than as an instance of continuum and evolution. Because while I’m stoked that Beyoncé is on par with Michael Jackson and am excited about watching her career evolve, I think of it as her career. In time, I hope that we think of this shy Houstonian playing the brazen pop goddess for all the world not as the next anything. Rather, I think of her in dialogue with the past, looking to pop history as a means of defining Beyoncé.