Like Frank Sinatra, Cat Power, and a number of beauty pageant contestants before and after her, Jessica Simpson is a covers artist.
In the states, Simpson has seven gold singles to her name since cresting on a blonde wave of virginal jailbait late last century. Three of those hits are from that era, one of them is her post-divorce anthem, and three of them were released during the height of Newlyweds‘ popularity. Two of the three songs in the final category are covers, in addition to a few more that didn’t chart. I’d cast a more critical eye toward two of her singles sampling pop standards–“I Think That I’m In Love With You” borrows the hook to John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane,” “A Public Affair” is built around Madonna’s “Holiday” and Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”–but hip hop has so revolutionized pop music that it seems unfair to call Simpson out for something Rihanna has done too. Though “SOS” and “Please Don’t Stop the Music” are masterful pop songs, in part because of how inventively they repurpose Soft Cell’s cover of “Tainted Love” and Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”. Simpson’s hits rely upon our familiarity with the sample–a Diddy hat trick–but never transcend the source material.
Upon her entree into pop stardom, Simpson was cast as a paler shade of Britney. Spears was the pop star, Christina Aguilera was the diva, Mandy Moore was the first one to go brunette, and Jessica was the one who actually obeyed the record label’s directive and married someone in a boy band. It’s terrifying how much these roles mean to us.
The callous dismissal of Simpson’s musical talent stung in part because she was almost cast opposite Spears and Christina Aguilera in the early 90s reboot of The Mickey Mouse Club. The legend is that Simpson was intimidated by the prospect of following up Aguilera in a singing audition and choked. I also think marketing four blonde teenage pop stars to the TRL crowd further suggests the music industry’s arrogance and disregard for people. “Maybe the Britneybot’s synapses will misfire after we ply it with diet pills. Good to have a backup.” Packaging young women as disposable commodities is sexist, even before we factor in their uniform physical attributes. But their male counterparts didn’t fare much better. Being cast as an archetype (the bad boy! the funny one!) in one of many interchangeable vocal groups is pretty dehumanizing too. Ask Du Jour.
The cultural rationalization that Simpson is good enough has hurt her career irrevocably, perhaps because she was trying so hard to live up to some ideal that, like Judith Butler and Kartina Richardson suggest, is a copy of an original that doesn’t exist. It was the cancer that infected her relationship with John Mayer too (actually, John Mayer is the cancer that infects all of his relationships). It impacted her voice, which lacked any distinct character. It functioned instead as an index of shouty melismas, breathy coos, and feigned erotic sighs that became hallmarks of contemporary pop vocal performance. Simpson didn’t sound like anyone in particular except maybe that girl you knew in high school who sang Mariah Carey’s “Hero” at the talent show. But I never remembered her voice or how I felt when I heard her sing so much as recognized when the moment had passed. Often, her voice sounded like the pop equivalent of a fake orgasm.
So it’s interesting to me that where her career actually took off was in retail, which is all about recycling and mass reproduction. The prospect of dressing like (or smelling like) Jessica Simpson holds little appeal to me. With rare exception, celebrity personal style is a myth. She’s famous, which means she has an army of stylists. Of course, part of my response is based on is cast as Simpson’s inspiration. Her look is pure Farrah and–like Rachel Bilson–I’m a Jacqueline Smith kind of girl. But she’s made a fortune getting multiple generations of women–my mother, your college roommate–to buy her pumps. And she really seems to like her own clothes, to the point where she parlayed her success in retail into a gig judging Fashion Star. She also seems to like the body wearing them. So I’m interested in how, following that time she wore unflattering jeans for a concert and everyone decided she was fat, Simpson has embraced a new shape. She didn’t give up sugar. She didn’t crash diet. She didn’t will herself into her seventeen- or twenty-five-year old body.
Simpson also gave birth to her daughter last month. I don’t intend to scrutinize her post-pregnancy body, as no one should have the right to sanction what kinds of bodies are permissible and aberrant in a society. I also don’t intend for this post to blindly celebrate Simpson’s curvier figure or–by omission–throw shade at female celebrities who’ve slimmed down. Simpson’s not radical. She’s a rich celebrity who shifted an unremarkable singing career into an opportunity to put her name on some handbags. But she seems happy and I hope she’s content and can figure out how to help her daughter acquire peace of mind (Will and Jada have some pointers). If in fact we’re all copies of some ideal we can only perceive and never reach, we may as well enjoy who we are and who we’ll become.
I’ve noticed that all the album covers I’ve considered so far all feature the artist responsible for the work. Since I’ll soon write a blog entry on Joanna Newsom’s pseudo-odalisque for the forthcoming Have One On Me, I thought it would be fun to pick a cover that not only doesn’t feature musicians, but instead has an image that’s damn indecipherable.
Issues around legibility are why I didn’t choose to write about Vaughan Oliver’s cover for The Breeders’ better-known and wonderful Last Splash or his work on Lush’s Split. With the former, I’m 99.9% sure we’re looking at a heart-shaped strawberry covered in something more viscous than dew (edit: according to my friend Erik, it’s a liver). Also, that image compliments the album’s sticky ruminations on ripe female sexuality. Split‘s cover focuses on fruit as well, displaying lemons in a presentational manner that honors the album’s cinematic qualities but belies its ambiguous feelings toward dissolved relationships.
But what the fuck is going on with Oliver’s cover for Pod, the band’s debut? Is that some interpretive dancer wearing a leotard who has wilted green beans for arms? Are those even arms or are they another set of appendages? You got me.
(Note: again, according to my friend Erik, the cover is a picture of Vaughn Oliver dancing with eels strapped to his waist. Whoa!)
The swirl of gauzy lighting, sugary colors, and ambiguous figures is a hallmark of Oliver’s work with 4AD. I believe he did as much to create an aesthetic to match the label’s definitive dream pop and shoegaze as Peter Saville‘s stark, exacting compositions did for Factory Records’ output. With 4AD, the defining principle around both its look and sound was abjection. Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style recently brought up issues of abjection with regard to the construction of Jessica Simpson’s celebrity persona. Simon Reynolds and Joy Press made similar claims in The Sex Revolts about the womb-like sonic quality and pre-verbal, gender-ambiguous vocalizations that characterized much of shoegaze and dream pop, singling out My Bloody Valentine and 4AD labelmates Cocteau Twins.
I think The Breeders align with the abject as well. The name references founding members’ Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly’s sex and the naturalized biological function of the female body in ways that confront and mock patriarchal convention as well as evoke fear. This sense of terror is perhaps further enforced by the presence of bassist Kelley Deal, Kim’s identical twin sister. The album’s title suggests gestation, a bodily process fraught with abject implications. This theme extends to its songs as well. As Erik pointed out, “Hellbound” is about a baby who survives an abortion. The band’s origins even suggest the process of casting off, as Deal and Donelly initially came together to form a side project during the twilight of their time with 4AD acts The Pixies and Throwing Muses.
Furthermore, while The Breeders seem to have a more conventional sound anchored by accessible melodies, their music is far emotionally murkier than initial listening may suggest. Pod showcases a surprisingly clear, crisp production aesthetic engineered by Steve Albini for a pittance, but there’s something too narrow about the sound and too intense about the bright vocals and high harmonies. They help create a distinctly female tension that doesn’t get resolved after a quiet verse transitions into a cathartic, loud chorus. When the other shoe drops, as it does on songs like “Iris,” there’s little chance of release after the chorus so much as the certainty of more claustrophobic terror constricting the still moments waiting in the next passage.
And songs like “Oh!” contain little structural release apart from Deal’s splintered yelp at 1:47. They just wait. The band pounce elsewhere on the album, and you’re never ready for it when they let loose. It just proves that with women, like albums, can’t be judged by their covers.
So, Beth Ditto is a style icon. No two ways about it. If you know this, then you probably also know that Beth Ditto just launched a clothing line for Evans in the UK. You may have already read SparkleBliss’s rad, insightful post about it on her blog (which, if you haven’t, you should — go here). And, if you follow SparkleBliss on Twitter, you may already know that she just bought herself a cute outfit from the collection.
Now, women in music dabbling in fashion is nothing new. Indeed, women in popular culture writ large dabbling in fashion is almost de rigueur — another way to circulate your brand, add more hyphenates after your name, and give your fan base more tactile, tangible access to “you”. Everyone seems to be have at least attempted at designing a clothing line (Gwen Stefani, Victoria Beckham, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Lopez, Eve, Kate Moss, Rachel Bilson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Chloë Sevigny, an assortment of women on The Hills . . .) or work as a spokesmodel (M.I.A. for Marc Jacobs most immediately comes to mind).
But you’ll notice that a lot of the women I mentioned are presumably straight and all of them slender. Thus, the majority of female celebrity clothing lines align with normative identities of what women and girls should be. This indeed makes Ditto’s entrance into the world of fashion and retail (which she intimated in Bust as “dancing with the devil”) “a queer, fat cultural moment” as Charlotte Cooper at Obesity Timebomb purports it to be (and that SparkleBliss reprinted and linked in her post — seriously, go read it). It’s too bad that Margaret Cho’s High Class Cho line didn’t take off (complete with non-numerical sizes named for bombshells like Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe) — if so, we could add “woman of color” to the list of signifiers.
Also, looking at Ditto’s body and orientation is important when contextualizing her within pop music’s landscape. Slender pop stars like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga are also interested in fashion and with putting together their own clothing lines, but while Perry and Gaga flirt with queerness, Ditto is out. And while Perry’s look most clearly aligns with vintage, pin-up Hollywood glamor (albeit to a heightened, campy degree) and Gaga’s look is definitely severe couture (perhaps even a bit fascistic in ways reminiscent of Siouxsie Sioux, but let’s give this issue its own entry), Ditto’s collection is at once hip, wearable, distinctively Ditto, and specifically for plus-sized women and girls, perhaps more closely aligning Ditto with her fan base than Perry or Gaga could.
But we’d be doing a disservice to sing the praises of Ditto’s collection without (as SparkleBliss and Obesity Timebomb point out) a) acknowledging the inherent adherence to capitalism and b) being conscious of the (often cheap, exploitative) modes of production and labor responsible for putting this collection out into the market along with potential class issues and limitations among various consumer groups. Even the ways in which the unnatural, weird, non-human look of the mannequins wearing her clothes suggest we have a ways to go as a culture before a large female body becomes a natural body.
Alongside this, we can’t extol the virtues of Ditto’s collection without acknowledging that Ditto launched her line in the UK, where she is actually popular, instead of in the United States, where she’s slightly less than obscure.
I still feel like there’s something really important in having a space in the market for full-figured women and girls to have a cool clothing made explicitly for them, just like I thought it was rad for there to be Tracy Turnblad dolls to coincide with the release of the remake of Hairspray. Of course, I can’t exalt these instances without acknowledging the ickiness of capital, using niche groups supposedly under the guise of serving them while in actuality creating greater gains for the corporations and retail chains that create and disseminate the brand, and clogging our homes with stuff . . .
Yet, I do think these cultural moments are not to be overlooked, even if these moments are dependent on consumerism. It’s important for women and girls to have access to clothes that include them in the world of fashion that look good and make them feel good. Likewise, it is important that queer women and girls (perhaps more pointedly femme women and girls) have a spokeswoman creating an inclusive space for them in popular culture. Because there’s a lot of joy to be had in finding an item that was made for you.