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
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.
So, I’ve been tracking coverage of Rihanna’s new haircut (yes, it was considered news by many in the blogosphere). Last week, she updated her trademark edgy pixie cut with a shaved base. Perhaps people are so used to her short hair or the new cut looks fairly similar, but I haven’t noticed much of a hubbub. I guess because of the to-do over Kristen Stewart’s Joan Jett mullet, I was expecting more of a stir. Perhaps a homophobic panic. More specifically, I anticipated potential linkages made between the hair change and speculation over her dealings with ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, as last month they agreed to a court-ordered separation agreement following Brown’s much-reported assault against Rihanna last March.
However, most people seem to be pro to neutral with Rihanna’s haircut (Bossip is an exception). And I guess that’s good. I like the hairstyle. If she wanted to go bald, that’d be cool with me too. It’s so strange to think that she still once had a long, tumbling mane of hair, perhaps a hold-over from her beauty queen days as she transitioned into her current cultural role as pop star. I definitely prefer her with short hair; it maximizes her features, suits the dark robotic edge of her synth pop, and queers her in some interesting ways. Perhaps it gets us a little closer to style icon Debbi from Repo Man.
But I’m also curious as to the racial dimensions of Rihanna’s haircut, and what the shave may mean. I admittedly don’t know much about hair and women of color, other than an awareness that hair is both a source of contention and a space for play, particularly for women of African descent. Indeed, the Barbadan pop star’s decision to shave her head is culturally very different from, say, Tilda Swinton, requesting a buzz job. Some detractors of Rihanna’s new ‘do may perhaps read the shortening, straightening, sculpting, and now, buzzing of her hair as a disavowal of her “natural” hair. They may read pop singer Cassie’s half-shaved look or model Amber Rose’s bleached buzz cut similarly.
Of course, subscribing to this reading blindsides the multicultural aspects of this discussion. Rihanna is from Barbados, a Caribbean island with integrated African, Middle Eastern, and European communities. Within those communities exist several more ethnically distinct cultural origins. Thus, while Rihanna’s accent marks her as Barbadan, what that identity is in terms of racial and ethnic categories is far more difficult to extract. Furthermore, Cassie is of African American, Filipino, West Indian, and Mexican heritage. Amber Rose is of Italian and Cape Verdian descent (at least that’s what Wikipedia told me). So they both exist within and outside of African American identities.
I admit I don’t have answers. And, as a white woman, it’s easy for me to say “Rihanna shaved her head — cool,” which is not my intention. Instead, I’m submitting this post as a conversation-starter, a point of entry to talk and think more critically about the dimensions of racial, ethnic, and gender identities. It may seem like “just hair,” but its supposed obviousness and frivolousness demands more critical inquiry.
So, lots of ladies in music have played with alter egos. Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, and Neko Case have made careers for themselves writing and recording songs as multiple characters, playing with gender roles in the process. Tori Amos released American Doll Posse in 2007, wherein she recorded and subsequently toured as a five-member girl group, each member having their own distinct look and personality modelled after Greek goddesses.
I keep thinking about female musicians’ use of alter egos alongside Elana Levine’s reading of the Showtime series The United States of Tara, which is written by Diablo Cody and stars Toni Collette as a working wife and mom with multiple personality disorder. Levine reads the show as a response to third-wave feminism’s interest in the multiplicity of identity.
I find this concept useful for my preoccupations with gender performance in music culture, particularly in thinking about Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce and Bat for Lashes’ Pearl. Click on the artist’s name to watch each music video.
Bat for Lashes
Directed by Nima
I Am Sasha Fierce
Directed by Melina Matsoukas
Thinking about the multiplicity of identity in conjuction with women of color opens up and complicates issues of identity even more (Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan is British and of mixed ethnic and racial hertiage — Pakastani on her father’s side, Caucasian on her mother’s side; Beyoncé is African American who is of French descent on her mother’s side). Khan’s Pearl wears a blonde wig and reads as white. Beyoncé’s Sasha has a metallic glove associated with robots and cyborgs, who are often racially coded as white. That these personae are shown alongside the artists’ “true” identities is also important, suggesting that they are both performances and extensions of themselves.
Some super-smart feminist friends have been talking about records and musicians that made them feminists lately and it makes me wanna wax nostalgic too. I’m really excited to be talking about Viva! La Woman, one of many albums that made me a feminist but the first that left quite an indelible impression. I basically put this blog together so that I could, at some point, thank Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda for blowing my mind. Thanks, ladies.
Right before I turned 13, I saw the video for “Know Your Chicken” on 120 Minutes, which was the pinnacle of my pre-teen Sunday nights. This video, with the two amazingly cool ladies bolted me upright. I’d get to the clip’s deliberately cheap aesthetic style and its parodying of both the sitcom and the genre’s gendered relational dynamics later. In junior high, I just needed to find out who the ladies were.
Sunday, the day of ritual for many, was also one for me. At 7 p.m., Houston’s alternative station (then Rocket 107.5 the Buzz, now 94.5 the Buzz) would broadcast “Lunar Rotation,” where director David Sadoff would play new stuff and oldies that didn’t make into heavy rotation. At 10, the station would broadcast “Modern Rock Live,” KROQ’s syndicated call-in program. Finally, at midnight, the station would have an hour of “whatever” programming. Usually, some guest would play whatever they wanted. The one that most immediately comes to mind was Self’s Matt Mahaffey serving as guest deejay, playing album cuts from Portishead’s Dummy. It never mattered, because it was always white noise for 120 Minutes, which ran the coolest, newest videos that never aired on MTV during the day.
In terms of feminist reflections on my girlhood, Sunday was this fantastical time where I could hang out in my room (usually playing Nintendo, sometimes reading, sometimes making wall collages out of clippings from Seventeen) and wrap my head around some new music. This was a bit hard to do as my hometown is a bit removed from much of anything new.
But Fridays on MTV gave me another place to access this beguiling song, via their short run of Squirt TV, originally a New York-based public access show that my boyfriend, Jake Fogelnest, would record in his bedroom. Liz Phair also came onto Fogelnest during the show’s MTV run, but Liz will get her own post when I write about my 17th birthday. For now, let’s watch Cibo Matto perform live.
And then they were on House of Style, eating dessert. Then the video for “Sugar Water” came out, which left such an impression that I wrote an entire section of my thesis on it. A short time after that, they were getting a write-up in Rolling Stone, with their album’s genre-melding, cut-and-paste sound being favorably compared (however problematically) to fugu. I would later come to call my college radio show “Cheesecake or Fugu” in tribute. And there they were on my stepbrother’s Tibetan Freedom Concert CD, a bit later, when I was a freshman, yelling “shut up so we can eat, too bad no bon appétit!”
So, even though they were on a major label and being promoted on MTV and Rolling Stone, Cibo Matto seemed like they were from Japan based in New York transmitted from the moon. And yet, they’ve followed me everywhere since, making themselves familiar, like a home.
All this hype, but I didn’t get the album until Christmas sophomore year, when I was 15. I wanted the purchase of this album to be special. When I finally got it, I spent hours ignoring the paperback of Wuthering Heights I had to read for school (which also made me a feminist, in opposition) so I could study the album’s packaging. Mike Mills’s cover alone was empowering — the curvy, muscular, perhaps multi-ethnic superwoman standing proudly in her gold bikini and sandals. And the curvilinear sketches that accompanied the lyric sheet was elegant and beguiling. But for me, it was all about the inlay image underneath the disc.
While this image was shot in New York, it looked like another world to me alone in my bedroom in Alvin, Texas. I wanted to know everyone in this scene and be their friends. I wanted to know where Yuka and Miho got those bikes and dresses. I wanted to listen to all of the records people were pouring over. And I actually did pull my stepbrother’s skateboard out of the garage, busting my ass as I attempted to use it. But more than that, I wanted the confident cool that these two women possessed.
The older I get, the more comfortable I feel with myself, and I feel much of this is indebted to Cibo Matto, especially this first album, as to me its basically a declaration for the powers, pleasures, and peculiarities of femaleness. One need only look to the title.
The concept of the album is important. “Concept album” as a construct tends to make me shudder, thinking about bearded dudes noodling with guitars and piles of synthesizers and writing tiresome odes to alienation, but, indeed, Viva! La Woman is a concept album. About food. Eating food. Each track, with the exception of “Theme,” is named after food and all of the songs mention eating or being consumed as if they were food. More times than not, it’s about eating instead of being eaten.
And OMG, they did something totally dirty with their cover of “Candyman,” turning the original, which I always found oppressively, creepily cheerful, and turning into some kind of porn soundtrack/trip hop/bossa nova thing, complete with sampled moaning (*blush*).
On that tack, this album is super-sexy, in ways both obvious and difficult to process. Perhaps it suggests that Asian and Asian American women don’t reflect the limited, servile, infantalized depictions others have circulated at their expense. With “White Pepper Ice Cream,” a slow, rollicking bass line accompanies lines like “black and white, Bonnie and Clyde” suggesting that women and girls can occupy both within themselves at once. And with “Theme,” the album’s centerpiece, what begins as a short story about a chance encounter with a handsome stranger while vacationing in Milan becomes a blind-folded S&M session that collapses into muffled, breathy coos; the music reflects the narrative changes at every turn. I didn’t know what to do with this as a teenager, and am still trying to figure it out as an adult.
Thinking about the constant stylistic shifting that goes on in the album’s instrumentation, I guess the duo’s sample-happy approach brings us to another feminist awakening: everything is connected. Beck gets a lot of credit, via Odelay, for helping set to tone for popular music’s comfort with hybridity the 90s (of course borrowing from The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, bringing on The Dust Brothers as producers). I won’t dispute that. But I’d like to add this album (along with Pavement’s Wowee Zowee and Björk’s Post) into the discussion. If mention wants to be made of the group’s gender, ethnicity, and their relationship with hip hop, so much the better.
Cibo Matto’s use of quotation and musical association was crucial to defining the era, but also bespoke the duo’s attitudes toward femaleness. Because connectedness doesn’t just apply to how they built tracks, but also in how they wrote lyrics. Once again, everything is connected. In “Sugar Water,” black cats crossing one’s path is cosmically linked to a woman in the moon singing to the Earth. Extrapolating further, everything is connected and everything is informative. The personal is not only political, but educational.
And finally, I really enjoy the album’s weirdness. I say this not as a way to other the Japanese American women responsible for its creation or to announce my whiteness alongside it. Literally, the album is packed with memorable, weird, sometimes shouted non sequitors that serve as the songs’ hooks. For example, in “Beef Jerky,” the chorus is “Who cares? I don’t care? A horse’s ass is better than your’s.” In “Know Your Chicken” the bridge is “spare the rod and spoil the chick before you go and shit a brick.” And of course, “Birthday Cake” contains the much-quoted line “extra sugar, extra salt, extra oil and the MSG — shut up so we can eat, too bad no bon appétit!” I like to think moments like this suggest the possibilities to rupture, critique, and find humor in living life female.
And sometimes songs don’t end. A song like “Beef Jerky” concludes with the elliptical phrase “let’s eat carrots together until . . .” Indeed, life doesn’t end. It simply builds on itself, layer by layer, line by line, sample by sample. I can’t wait to discover what I find in this record when I’m 35.