Last summer, I watched I Am Love and broke my weakly held resolve not to watch Tilda Swinton movies. I briefly attempted to boycott the actress’ work following her decision to stand with Roman Polanski in 2009. I can’t justify the revocation. But I remain invested in her career, as well as her sartorial choices, musical collaborations, and commitment to global cinema. While I’m disappointed that Swinton (among folks like Martin Scorsese) signed a petition demanding Polanski’s release from Zürich, I think she makes cerebral professional choices and is one of the most compelling screen presences of her generation.
I was interested in I Am Love for a few reasons. For one, I love passion project collaborations between friends. Director Luca Guadagnino spent several years trying to get the project off the ground and Swinton was instrumental in getting the film made. Also, she speaks Italian in the thing. To add a layer of complexity, her Italian is inflected with a Russian accent, as her character Emma escaped the Soviet regime through marrying into a wealthy Italian family who made their money in textiles. Also, after reading Stella Bruzzi’s Undressing Cinema, I have renewed critical interest in costume design for film. Thus, I also have an investment in the ongoing discourse surrounding the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ inattention toward achievements in costuming beyond period films (an argument in conversation with critical pushback against the Academy’s definitions on what constitutes an “original” film score), I was interested in how designer Antonella Cannarozzi dressed the film.
Though I Am Love takes place at the turn of the 21st century, and is thus ultimately a period film, it challenges Molly Lambert’s assertion that, in the 90s, European fashion foregrounded excess while American clothing design privileged simplicity. While some of her extended family may take to lavish high couture, much of Emma’s wardrobe consists of minimalist shift dresses and twinsets. The exceptional fit and versatility of a garment seems to justify its cost rather than its opulent detailing. Given German designer Jil Sander’s involvement in I Am Love, we might need to complicate our assumptions about how clothing designers use clothes to signify material wealth and nationhood. Though it seems as though Emma looks toward American society wives like Jacqueline Kennedy when she puts together an outfit, we might want to remember the First Lady’s obsession with French designers. However, just as with everything else in Emma’s life, her clothes confine her as much as they announce her station.
Many people describe the film as a story about a woman breaking free from societal restriction. They would be right in that summation, though short-sighted if they solely attribute her awakening to taking a lover. True, Antonio is an important figure. He’s a chef and of a lower class position than Emma. But while much has been made of the “prawnography” scene and the sequence where Emma finally pursues her desire, all of Emma’s decisions are motivated by the understanding that her daughter Elisabetta is as a lesbian. This bit of news–and the implication of her daughter’s rebellion against her mother’s life decisions–seem to initially disturb but ultimately transform Emma. If her daughter can follow her heart and own her desires, why can’t she? This redefines their relationship and places Elisabetta in something of a mentorship position for her mother, who is only finally learning how to love after taking to her daughter’s example. As an adult woman whose mother just turned 65 yesterday, I take enormous comfort and pride in how she seeks to learn from me as much as I do from her.
This brings us to the scene where Emma discovers her daughter’s orientation. Emma finds Elisabetta’s copy of Arto Lindsay’s Salt, a token from an ill-fated affair with another woman. She keeps this album as a reminder of what they shared and a means through which to process her grief and find catharsis. Lindsay’s status as a post-rock avant-garde composer may now be a signifier of affluence, as Krin Gabbard argues as jazz’s function in American film after the 1970s in Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema. Lindsay drove Caetano Veloso from the airport during the Brazilian musician’s first trip to New York. This may have represented a reassertion of a fringe or outsider identity in the 1980s, as Lindsay and Veloso were associated with politically reactionary musical subgenres like no wave and Tropicália at the time. But twenty to thirty years later, it may also just mean that more rich people can throw on a Caetano Veloso record for a dinner party. However, I don’t think those affiliations necessarily presume a degradation in quality or emotional significance for the listener. What’s more, subversion can happen in a concert hall or a boat party as surely as it can in a punk concert in someone’s basement.
It should not be ignored that Lindsay’s Salt uses a Kara Walker piece as its cover art. As many recognize and I discussed elsewhere, Walker’s confrontational body of work is loaded with rich, complicated, and troubling assertions and surreal reimaginings of America’s racist cultural history. Thus it might be just as upsetting that Emma’s daughter has an album with a cover that appears to have an image of a man examining and invading a black woman’s anatomy. What’s especially disconcerting about this image is its ambiguity–is the woman helping or controlling her examiner? Agency is not clearly established here, nor are power relations fixed. This conscious decision to position the art within the abject and play with societal boundaries would seem just as upsetting to a woman who built her life on being the perfect mother, wife, and hostess. These are the imposed borders through which Emma traverses. Her daughter, along with Lindsay and Walker, provides a compass.
So, I recently revisited Björk’s Vespertine because, as followers of the blog can probably guess, it made me a feminist and I will be posting about the hows and whys of it at length in the not-too-distant future.
But one thing I forgot about the album that really impacted what I listen for in other people’s music is non-traditional instrumentation. Of course Björk would extend these musical explorations further with her follow-up, Medúlla, which was largely an a cappella record that explicitly configured the voice as an instrument, and often a percussive one at that (hopefully the feminist possibilities of using the voice –both explicitly female and degendered through digital manipulation — as such an integral part of song construction are obvious). But with Vespertine, she and production team Matmos often constructed beats out of surprising, often small, seemingly non-musical objects often associated with leisure pursuits or the domestic, like a deck of cards or cutlery.
Listening to the album again reinvigorated my interest in hearing weird objects be used as instruments. Today, I offer up toys as possible instruments and present bands Y Pants and CocoRosie as evidence. Representing New York at two very different times (early 80s and present-day, respectively), these two bands have members who employ rudimentary electronic toy pianos, noisemakers, and other gadgets that seem swiped from a long-abandoned bargin bin.
For Y Pants’ Gail Vachon and Virginia Piersol, the toy piano and drums became an interesting way to reconfigure the sound of dub and reggae, two key interrelated musical movements for both punk and post-punk that had probably become too predictable as white-appropriated touchstones by 1979. As Y Pants were associated with no wave, with ukelele player Barbara Ess once a member of Theoretical Girls, another seminal band of the period formed by guitar visionary/cranky drunk grandpa Glenn Branca, there’s an excellent chance the band was rebelling against post-punk’s intellectualist posturing and angular guitar lines. What better way to piss off the scene than making messy music about the joys of eating with factory-produced shiny plastic toys?
(Note: Apologies, but I cannot find a live performance for Y Pants. As with much no wave, which was reviled by pretty much anyone with ears at the time and only recently became cool, despite the Brian Eno-produced No New York compilation, there’s not a lot of recorded evidence of the band in concert. The only thing I’ve seen that really documents the scene is Downtown ’81, but Y Pants were just about to break up by then. Which is too bad, because apparently they were all about unconventional performance spaces. So if you have any leads on where to track down a clip, let me know. In the meantime, check out Y Pants, a repressing that combines their self-titled EP with their only album, Beat It Down.)
With CocoRosie, the instrumentation conveys something a little more transparently disturbing. Sierra Casady’s sweet, at once jazzy and operatic vocals contrast with wheezy, out-of-time bleeps and bloops from sister Bianca’s various toy instruments, which foreground songs that tend to focus on death, drugs, doomed love, incest, AIDS, abuse, and co-dependency. The toys, which may one day expire or be discarded, then become a symbol of betrayed innocence, the cold assurance that childhood — girlhood — is going to end in loss. At least you have your sister, who may also be your lover.
As an aside, I can’t bring up CocoRosie without pointing out that they’re really problematic in terms of race. They’ve dabbled with cholo fashion, perhaps in acknowledgement to the multifaceted dimensions of their Native American heritage, which they have also hailed in their attire and music.
In addition, they’ve made me a bit queasy in their appropriations of blackness. They consciously try on the voices of African American jazz singers like Billie Holiday. In addition, on “Jesus Loves Me,” a track off their first album, La maison de mon rêve, the girls uses a certain racial slur when singing that God’s only son loves them, but not their wives, or their black friends. And Bianca has long been a fixture at Kill Whitey parties in Brooklyn.
That said, to borrow a phrase from Seth Watter’s Dusted review of Y Pants, both bands’ use of toys help build minor manifestos that sound like “a small explosion in the bedroom.” In his essay “The ‘Feminization’ of Rock,” Tony Grajeda argues that the bedroom is a domestic, queerable, intimate space where most lo-fi music is written, rehearsed, and recorded. While he was thinking about primarily-male indie rock acts like Pavement, the bedroom is clearly where Y Pants and CocoRosie belong as well. Just don’t pretend there isn’t anything subversive about what these ladies do in there.
Originally, I was going to write about Mama’s Gun, Erykah Badu’s second full-length album, in tandem with PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. The reason for this was two-fold: for one, I got the two albums within a week of one another my senior year as Christmas presents (one of the few perks of having divorced parents) and, for another, both albums are turn-of-the-century declaratives about the complexities and contradictions of women being in and out of love, sometimes thrillingly occupying both positions at once. I also thought, as a neat aside, that it might be useful to think about contemporary female artists’ work across racial and/or generic boundaries.
However, I worry that I’d be doing a disservice to those particularities by glossing over them in what would inevitably be an overgrown post. Furthermore, there are some jarring differences between the two albums that I cannot yet resolve in thinking about them together. Harvey’s “happy” album is largely believed to be about her by-now defunct relationship with hipster auteur and New York die-hard Vincent Gallo; Badu’s “game-changing” album is conclusively about the end of her relationship with OutKast’s André 3000 and possibly the beginning of another one with Common. Harvey’s album finds her brightening her sound after her more experimental, less well-received Is This Desire? (which absolutely will be discussed as a record that made me a feminist once I start recounting my college years). Badu’s album finds her expanding her sound (and perhaps the sound associated with “neo-soul,” however silly a term that became), a project she would continue to do with last year’s mind-blowing, radically political, and tremendously funky, New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War.
Most importantly, for my purposes, while the former speaks more specifically to love’s ability to project, the latter speaks to the embodied, conflicting feelings of a female place in a relationship.
Badu and I had met previously. Baduizm came out in 1997 and I found out about it thanks to Kurt Loder and the good people of MTV News who proclaimed that I would, in fact, hear it from them first. I bought it that summer for my birthday (for what it’s worth, I bought it with Ben Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen — happy birthday to 14-year-old me!). She also made appearances on One Life To Live as herself, and acted in Blues Brothers 2000 and Cider House Rules (which I still have not seen in its entirety, but I know that she does a good job playing a tragic character in what I thought was an otherwise totally boring movie). But I treasured my copy of Baduizm, marvelling that someone could make vintage jazz, R&B, and funk sound so refreshingly hip and contemporary. She had such an interesting and beautiful voice. I loved that the music was coming out of a Texas girl who also spelled her name with a “y” (albeit for far more politically motivated reasons than me; Erykah Badu changed her name to be closer to her Ghanan roots while I became “Alyx” because we were studying Egypt in sixth grade social studies and I thought the spelling looked — ugh, white girl fail — more hieroglyphic).
But this album, which came out during my senior year hit me like a soft, sexy bomb (an apt reappropriation of Tom Breihan’s assessment of D’Angelo’s Voodoo, another pioneer 2000 release that, for some reason, I don’t own. I have, of course, seen the delightfully NSFW video for “Untitled“). I actually heard “Didn’t Ya Know” for the first time at a movie theater in West Palm Beach visiting my dad on Christmas vacation (I think it played before a screening of Cast Away). The Spice Girls’ “Holla” played some time after that, but as J. Dilla’s warm, soulful production wrapped around me and Badu’s at-times wrenching and at-times assured vocal delivery let me know what I’d be spending that Sam Goody gift certificate on.
Speaking of J. Dilla, Badu’s collaborative spirit was also something of an inspiration to me, especially since was able to work with men. Like Björk, who has worked extensively with like-minded dudes like directors Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, as well as producers like Matmos, Mark Bell, and Nellee Hooper, Badu was always able to forge creative spaces with men while still standing her own ground. With The Roots or producer J. Dilla (and later Madlib and 9th Wonder), she was still fully able to articulate her artistic imperatives. When she duets with Stephen Marley on “In Love With You,” she seems to be coming at the song (and its subject matter) as an equal. It should also be noted that she’s got room for the ladies too, working with women like Jill Scott and, on this album, Betty Wright.
One thing I’ve always felt Badu doesn’t get enough credit for as a musician is her loopy yet razor-sharp sense of humor. Anyone who follows fatbellybella on Twitter can tell you Badu is hilarious. But her humor is also evident in her songwriting, which while often confessional will often diffuse potentially maudlin moments with daffy yet incredibly perceptive asides (the bridge to “…& On” recounts memorable moments — in loose rhyme — going with her mom to the laundromat, her first period, learning about oppression at school, watery cereal, hearing herself on the radio, and wearing head wraps). Her self-awareness is also evident — “…& On” makes several direct references to Baduizm‘s breakout hit “On and On,” and “Cleva” mediatates on how she uses her brains and wit to compensate for self-perceived physical deficits, lamenting that her breasts sag when she’s not wearing a bra, bragging that her thrift-store togs look awesome, and stating, upfront, that this is what she looks like without makeup.
Her humor is also in her voice. People tend to focus more on her voice’s supposed “jazziness,” especially early on in her career when critics were clamoring to figure out how most subtly to compare her timbre and tone to the tragic Billie Holiday’s. And while Holiday’s humor also gets obscured from this discussion, if we have to compare Badu’s voice to someone else, I actually think Badu is closer to Blossom Dearie, the recently deceased singer who used her high-pitched coo to utilize a myriad of possibilities, whether it be taking pot-shots at hipsters or singing about unpacking adjectives. I could hear Badu doing both, maybe even in the same song.
What makes Badu’s approach to songwriting interesting is that her sense of humor can turn a song whose subject matter seems silly or inconsequential or rote on the surface into something surprisingly more progressive. Take “Booty,” for example. The song originally seems to be a a diss song directed at a woman whose man has turned his attentions toward Badu. While the woman has a PhD, is more conventionally attractive, is a better cook, boasts a fast-tracked career, and is more financially stable than Badu (at least in this song, as college-educated Erica Wright went to Grambling), Badu still has to fight off her partner’s advances. At first, when Badu says “I don’t want him,” it seems to suggest that this man (and, by association, this woman) are beneath her. Yet, in the bridge (the song has no verses), Badu reveals that her intentions speak toward a kind of female solidarity, albeit one strained by classed circumstantial differences. She doesn’t want this man, not because she has designs on someone else, but because he doesn’t respect his current relationship enough to be honest and make arrangements with his partner. In essence, Badu believes both women need to cut this man loose because they can do better.
She performs a similar feat with “Bag Lady,” which at first seems to be an indictment about women who enter into relationships with too much baggage. What it ends up becoming is an anthem about personal freedom and empowerment, with Badu encouraging the woman to break free from her self-imposed shackles, stressing that self-love will make it better while being backed by a euphoric women’s chorus.
Many would argue that “Green Eyes,” a ten-minute suite that stands as the album’s final song, is its centerpiece. I’d be one to agree, and find it especially astonishing that OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson,” which tells André 3000’s side of their break-up was released but a few months before Mama’s Gun came out (Badu also makes a cameo on the album, singing with her former partner about broken dreams in the chorus of “Humble Mumble”). As Touré discusses in his Rolling Stone review of Mama’s Gun, it’s hard not to read into these musicians’ personal moments that then get projected into their work, with the audience knowing who’s singing (or rapping) to who. You could easily do it with Beyoncé singing about being “Crazy in Love” with Jay-Z, who would then reply that he’s got hip hop and R&B’s “number one girl . . . wearing (his) chain” in “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” You could also easily do it with Badu’s appearance in the music video for Common’s “The Light,” a song the rapper wrote for her about their (now-defunct) relationship, strengthening the musical association by having J. Dilla steer the production.
But on its own, “Green Eyes” is an epic, discursive, devastating break-up anthem whose power few since have touched (though I think Aeroplane and Kathy Diamond’s “Whispers” comes the closest). It begins with a flirtatious, jazzy lilt wherein Badu claims that her eyes are green, not because she’s jealous that her former lover now has a new partner. Instead, she unconvincingly lies, her eyes are green because she eats a lot of vegetables. After claiming “it don’t have nahhhh-thing to do with your . . . friend,” the music becomes slower and more dirge-like. Her voice and lyrics also become less certain, shakier. She doesn’t know if she loves him anymore, but thinks she might, and is clearly frustrated how love is putting in her in such a tether. From here, she pushes her lover further away in one phrase, claiming to do fine and realizing how angry she is at him for not recognizing her worth, while a few lines later asks if they can make love one last time. Her humor is still there, at times helping her sell the lie of her feelings, while other times confronting her with the truth. She calls herself silly at the thought of her lover being true, stating that she should change her name to “Silly E. Badu.” It’s a joke, but no one — least of all her — is laughing. You know she’ll get through it eventually, but she has to work through her hurt before she moves forward. I know it was a song that helped me work through a broken heart, even if I had to lie face down and sob into the carpet to do it.
But there is plenty of love and lust on this album, acknowledging that women can turn art out of being happy and healthy. “Orange Moon” begins as a stately, romantic ballad to finding someone helped her believe in love, only to erupt into pure, unadulterated about how good/God her lover is (the “God” reference potentially serving as a Five Percenter allusion). “Kiss Me On My Neck (Hesi)” focuses its attentions instead on the more immediate nature of necessary gratification. The inclusion of these songs evince that for women, love and sex are neither mutual nor exclusive concepts. They can be both.
The album also allowed me to think outside of love (and thus myself) to start questioning more political matters and begin to want for more radical action. While Badu may be charming and funny, she’s also a fine, agitated mind. The song that accomplished this most specifically for me was “A.D. 2000,” a song about Amadou Diallo and his brutal murder at the hands of a quartet of trigger-happy police officers. Excepting the Rodney King beating and subsequent hearing, this was the first time I really thought about police brutality (note: Bruce Springsteen also addressed this horrible tragedy in song, to some controversy).
A year later, I would read about Mumia Abu-Jamal. Two and a half years after that, I would start dating a person who got pulled over by a cop for driving the speed limit with the headlights on in a residential area at 10 p.m. while listening to GZA’s Legend of the Liquid Sword. Eight months after that, I would read Assata Shakur‘s profound autobiography. About a year after that, I would read Angela Davis‘s autobiography, stunned that this intelligent, sensitive individual was the same person Ronald Reagan swore would never teach in California. Two years after that, I would get accosted by a cop for jay-walking through a red light at 3 a.m. when it was clear that the officer was more concerned by the nervous young college student of either Middle Eastern or South Asian descent walking three steps in front of me. In all this time in between, I would come to know several people who shared similar stories or worse, whether they were arrested for “obstructing a passageway” during protests or were accosted with racial profiling. I would also read about similar reported items in the news, always sad and horrified and sick and helpless that these kinds of actions still go on.
Badu would continue to be concerned with political issues like religious freedom, institutional racism, the drug trade, poverty, and sexism, and incorporate these matters into her music, which became increasingly more experimental as she matured as an artist. But with the political she always intersected personal issues, whether it was remembering growing up on hip hop records, motherhood, reconciling the fact that she had three babies with as many men, growing older, working within the mainstream, looking for ways to work outside of it, and always thinking about the ways that she fit (or chose not to fit) within it. This album was the start of thinking through these issues for me. I look forward to what Ms. Badu has to say next.
So, The Root is covering The Cosby Show and its cultural influence to celebrate the NBC series’ 25th anniversary, in a manner similar to how they reflected on Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Now, once again aware of the problematics of my identity with regard to fandom, I will admit that growing up a white girl in the rural suburbs of Houston, I totes wanted to be in the Huxtable family. I would have been fine being one of Rudy’s friends (I was probably closest to the shy, chubby white boy). Specifically though, I aspired to be like Clair. Admittedly a glib comparison, but maybe young women and girls of many different racial and ethnic identities have ascribed a similar aspirational status to our first lady.
Many folks have rightly critiqued the show for its idyllic, comforting, and unrealistic depiction of the charmed Huxtable clan against the racially charged climate informed the social dimensions of AIDS, drug addiction, incarceration, wage gaps, single-family incomes, education, and other major issues that many believe were ignored, if not outright caused, by the Reagan administration. And these are, for the most part, valid critiques. Indeed, Kanye West spoke and continues to speak for many people when he says “I ain’t one of the Cosbys, I didn’t go to Hillman” in “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’.” I’d even go so far as to point out that this was true for many prime time families by the end 0f the 1980s: there’s not a college degree between the Connors, the Bundys, and the Simpsons. Assuredly, the classed dimensions of racial inequality were in Bill Cosby’s mind, even going so far as to originally conceptualize Clair as being a plumber of Dominican descent and later, pairing up again with Phylicia Rashād on Cosby, making their characters decidedly more working class.
And I don’t think we can talk about The Cosby Show‘s influence without mentioning how no other show with an African American principle cast has since followed its legacy. Fledgling networks like FOX and, later, the WB and UPN, would incorporate a wide range of prime time programming featuring African Americans, though often met with middling to low ratings, short life cycles, and diminished corporate interests in representational politics as networks began to flourish.
And of course, we can’t discuss The Cosby Show without mentioning Dr. Cosby’s troubling history with partiarchy and sometimes limited view of what is considered respectable mediated representations from/of African Americans. That said, while I empathize with Lisa Bonet’s reported run-ins with Cosby, I’ll hedge that Angel Heart does look fucking terrible.
That said, The Cosby Show was a considerable cultural milestone and a damn entertaining sitcom that did an admirable job widening the scope and depth of representation for African Americans on prime time network television. And they were really funny.
I’d also like to add, echoing Erin Evans’s piece on the show’s theme song, that The Cosby Show broadened the scope and depth of African Americans’ contribution to music. Jazz, blues, rock and roll, hip hop, gospel, classical, Afrocuban, Broadway. It’s all there. “Kiss Me” was discursive and malleable, changing arrangements, historical moments, and generic arrangements from season to season.
Sometimes these contributions were peripheral, much like many of the paintings that hung on the home’s walls — Vanessa’s Michael Jackson poster most immediately comes to mind.
Sometimes these contributions dialoged with other musical forms associated with traditionally coded “white” culture (my mother would always giggle when opera tenor Placido Domingo sang to Clair; I’m always reminded of my mother in episodes involving Rudy’s teacher, played by Broadway’s salty Elaine Stritch, now recognizeable to many as Mother Donaghy on 30 Rock).
And sometimes music’s shifting racial dynamics back-and-forthed within one body, a point I’d argue is evident in Olivia’s Village coffeehouse performance of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” This is a noteworthy song selection, as punk legend Legs McNeil argues in Don Letts‘s documentary Punk: Attitude that it is one of rock’s most political songs and an influence to punk’s stripped-down, anti-hippie, confrontation style, as it’s a song about personal freedom (to single in on McNeil’s comment, start the clip at 7:33). That said, I’d like for none of to step on Olivia’s face. Thanks.
Let’s close with Olivia, and extend this discussion of musical moments to focus on the ladies, both within the Huxtable family and within music culture writ large. In addition to Olivia’s performance, let’s remember Vanessa’s struggle with the clarinet, enforcing that not all black people are inherently musical. Let’s remember Clair singing with Stevie Wonder. Let’s remember Lena Horne and Miriam Makeba. Let’s remember Rudy jubilant lip-synced performance of Margie Hendricks’s part in Ray Charles’s version of “Night Time Is the Right Time” for her grandparents anniversary. And let’s not forget: don’t step on their blue suede shoes.
So, after writing about my nostalgia last week, I thought I’d reflect on truly borrowed nostalgia: the music of my mother’s generation. I’m specifically thinking about the emergence of the female singer-songwriter, who came into vogue in the mid-1960s New York-based folk scene and became a cultural juggernaut by the end of the decade and into the mid-1070s with women like Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, for whom Sheila Weller wrote a toothsome, comprehensive biography last year called Girls Like Us.
The women’s sound(s), look(s), and message(s) would help destigmatize (if only for a moment) the feminist movement (if still largely configured to be a straight, middle-class, white woman’s struggle). They also helped pave the way for a revival of female singer-songwriters in the 1990s, helping result in the established careers of Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, and Björk, as well as the launch of festivals like Lilith Fair (which is rumored to make a return in 2010).
And, though perhaps a stretch, I kept thinking about these three women in relation to Betty Draper, Joan Holloway, and Peggy Olsen on Mad Men, three very different women beginning to weather and confront seismic shifts in gender and sexual politics at the beginning of the 1960s that the three artists featured in this book would at times undo, surrender to, and be blocked by at the end of the decade and into the 1970s.
Having read this book, I wonder if any of the women of Mad Men became fans of these artists. Would any of these women help make Tapestry one of the best-selling albums of all time? Betty and Joan may be a little too old, but I think they’d respectively empathize with Joni’s mother’s need to have a perfect Norwegian beauty for a daughter and Carly’s conflicting feelings about her sex-bomb identity. Peggy seems just the right age to follow these women, as she does accompany a co-worker to see Bob Dylan in season two. Personally, I think she’d be a huge Carole King fan. Two tough Brooklynite professionals with a knack for commercial pop art? Yeah, I think they’d find one another.
The key thing I appreciated about Girls Like Us, which does an exhaustive job documenting these three women’s personal and professional lives, is its committment to dialoging the artists with one another. Often, when attempts of this sort are made, it results in playing women off each other or reducing them to one singular entity (in this case, chick singer-songwriter seems the most apt dismissive). Weller does an admirable job individuating them (further enforced by using a different font for each woman), while at the same time highlighting where they overlap or interact and putting them in a gendered generational context of women and girls coming into their own particular feminist awakenings.
Notably, these women were all self-made. Carole Klein and Canadian-born Roberta Joan Anderson became Carole King and Joni Mitchell, toiling for years in the Brill Building and the coffeehouse circuit before becoming legendary. And Carly Simon, born into the New York elite as the third child of the Simon family (yes, of Simon & Schuster), had to start from scratch after years of following artist boyfriends, watching her sisters get married, and working odd jobs before landing a career. They also established themselves as icons at the same time. 1971 would be the year that King released her second solo album, Tapestry, culminating in one of the few Grammy wins for Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Album of the Year for a female artist. That same year, Mitchell would release Blue, a huge artistic breakthrough. And in 1972, alongside King’s sweep, Simon would win her Grammy for Best New Artist for her self-titled debut.
One unfortunate commonality all three women share is a need to make men happy, almost always the wrong man or the undeserving man. This is a lesson I saw many of my mother’s generation learn the hard way, and fear it will continue to play out with other women and girls, but hope we’ll learn from history. For Carole, this meant four marriages — first to her Brill Building lyricist Gerry Goffin (who would father singer Earl-Jean McCrae’s daughter Dawn while still married to King), then to bassist Charles Larkey, then to two chauvinist mountain men named Rick. For Joni, this meant marrying a man named Chuck Mitchell who (in her account) forced her to give up an infant daughter (her pregnancy, and giving up a daughter, would haunt Mitchell for years until she was reuinted with Kilauren in the late 1990s). For Carly, this meant using her sexual wiles to snare a man at all costs, a lesson she learned from her mother Andrea, before casting her lot with a man that would remain a drug addict for the majority of their marriage before unceremoniously dumping her.
Both Carole and Carly suffered considerable heartache, though Joni, perhaps a typical only child, often would cut and run, preferring solitude and creative freedom to being tied down, a lesson she learned by following Crosby, Stills, and Nash while living with Graham Nash. The woman who wrote “Woodstock” would not be cast as another man’s groupie.
As Carly’s man was James Taylor, it seems important to point out that all three of these women had some connection with Sweet Baby James. As James (along with almost all male rock stars of the era) was in awe of Carole King’s legacy as a Brill Building composer, he often covered her work extensively, most notably “You’ve Got a Friend.”
King nursed an unrequited crush, though her songwriter Toni Stern wrote “It’s Too Late” after the end of her affair with Taylor.
Joni dated James for a while. It ended, but at least she and Carly became friendly later in life.
And Carly presumably expedited the matrimonial process by writing “You’re So Vain” and getting one of her rumored paramours, Mick Jagger, to contribute back-up vocals. Taylor proposed shortly thereafter, creating the first rock star marriage. However, he would often get sidelined by his ongoing battle with heroin, as well as his wife’s meteoric rise to pop stardom. She would often worry herself sick and modify her behavior for Taylor, a symptom Weller believes is linked to wanting to please her disengaged father.
Yet, I don’t want to suggest these women are patriarchy’s tragic casualties. I certainly don’t think they would. Carole continued a long professional partnership with Goffin, and also accepted Dawn, Goffin’s daughter with McRae, as one of her own children, something her biological children did as well. In addition, she became very politically active, lobbying hard for environmental issues, particularly working to preserve Idaho’s wildlife after falling in love with its woodlands.
Joni kept pushing herself further artistically, regardless of whether or not she was met with critical acclaim. She most notably began incorporating jazz elements into her music, hiring reputable session musicians and expanding her sonic and lyrical styles (though also began playing with race and lauding “natural” blackness, which Weller takes to task, specifically when talking about Mitchell’s black alter ego Art Nouveau, which she poses as in blackface for the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter).
And Carly was most prominent in the mainstreaming of feminism (though not without its own issues — in the 1970s, feminism was often a Seven Sisters game and Simon, a Sarah Lawrence dropout born from a wealthy family, fit right in). She also promoted the celebration of female sexual agency and autonomy, complicating the widely-held belief that all second wavers were man-haters waging a war on sex. She also had a liberated attitude toward sex, which Weller supports with conjectures that “You’re So Vain” is actually about multiple men. In addition, Simon has alluded to having an open marriage and being bisexual, as well as being an advocate for LGBT rights.
In short, these women mattered. They shaped the perspectives and actions of millions of women and girls of my mother’s generation. They proved that female artists could garner a huge mainstream audience (a lesson that needed to be reminded to A&R folks, concert promoters, and radio programmers in the 1990s, resulting in countercultural movements like riot grrrl and mainstream enterprises like Lilith Fair). And they continue to influence female recording artists and their listeners. And, most importantly, they continue to work, just as their male counterparts do, regardless of whether or not they are deemed culturally relevant. Let their voices be heard.
I recently saw the documentary This Is the Life: How the West Was One, which, as folks like Olu Alemoru have noted, did a huge service to music history by documenting the little-discussed but influencial Good Life scene. Emerging out of an open mic night at a veggie/vegan restaurant called the Good Life in South Central Los Angeles during the late 1980s, the scene came to fruition in the early 1990s, forming outreach programs like Project Blowed and getting lots of talented folks on the mic and behind the wheels of steel in the process.
Heavily influenced by jazz, artists at the Good Life could not swear and priviledged improvisation and complex, imagery-laden rhyme schemes over route memorized rhymes about money, guns, and bitches. Oh, and if you weren’t on point, you got booed. Especially if you were Fat Joe, who was forced to pass the mic.
At times, artists associated with the scene competed with commercial hip hop artists or got signed to major labels (most notably Jurassic 5). Emcees like Volume 10, Ganjah K, and Myka 9 of Freestyle Fellowship saw more successful acts like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Bones Thugs-n-Harmony swipe their phrasing, content, and style. Sometimes the scene was alluded to in early 90s television shows like Fox’s South Central. For the most part, the scene, which was perhaps more politically in line with the Native Tongues movement, was eclipsed by gangsta rap and the tiresome and deadly East Coast-West Coast beef.
Fortunately, director Ava DuVernay put together an invaluable documentary so that the artists of this scene (many of whom, like Jurassic 5, Cut Chemist, Abstract Rude, Aceyalone, and Myka 9, among others, are still recording today) can tell their own story in their own words (for her story, I highly recommend this interview). Also included are contemporary artists who were influenced by the scene (most notably Busdriver, who is easily one of my favorite rappers recording today).
My only big complaint is that, while there are women in the scene who are interviewed for the documentary, they really only get fifteen minutes to talk about their work and then spend the rest of the time talking about how much they admired — and sometimes had crushes on — many of the male MCs.
But that said, there were women in the scene who made awesome music. I’d like to highlight a few of them now.
Figures of Speech – a duo comprised of Jyant and Eve (Ronda Ross and DuVernay). So breezy and jazzy and also strong, smart, and in command. So rhythmically intricate yet so in sync and so in tune with one another. And also, I’d argue, so clearly feminist. I only wish I knew about them earlier. You can listen to a live recording of “Alpha Omega” here.
Medusa – assuredly familiar to those who’ve seen Rachel Raimist’s Nobody Knows My Name, a wonderful documentary about women in hip hop that looks at emergent MCs, dancers, and producers. Ms. Moné Smith is a warrior — fierce, fearless, not one to mince words or suffer fools. An inspiration who is still recording today.
T. Love – also familiar to those who’ve seen Raimist’s documentary (indeed, her song “Nobody Knows My Name” provided the film’s title). Poised, poetic, and uncompromising. In addition to rapping, she has also does a considerable amount of freelance writing and has run her own label.
B. Hall – there’d be no Good Life without the proprietrix of the Good Life, a veteran activist and city organizer and an advocate for local youth. She’s also the enforcer of the no profanity policy, because wordsmiths shouldn’t have to swear to create art. Someday, I hope she gets a street named after her.