Few words in the English vernacular are as slippery and imprecise as “cool.” I don’t know what it means. If someone were to apply the word to me, I’d be tempted to respond with, “But I’m so sweaty.”
“Cool” has been applied to me. Usually it has some connection to my music fandom, though perhaps my stern resting face and propensity for color blocking contribute to the association. I think it’s been used as a compliment. Sometimes, it feels like a pejorative or a judgment, particularly when the usage seems like a synonym for “hipster.” There’s truth in it. I would paraphrase Panda Bear’s “Comfy in Nautica” in order to hazard a definition for coolness that honors the bravery of kindness. In the past, I’ve revealed some of my pretensions by claiming that I was the kind of teenager who didn’t “understand” the electric guitar and preferred atonal choral music. Yet for me, there’s distance with that vexing descriptor.
First, I have to consider how music shaped my adolescence. Of course, to do so requires an acknowledgment of my privileged access to resources like media technologies, musical artifacts, and domestic privacy. I got a clock radio for Christmas when I was ten. At around this time, I also received a portable tape player and later a Discman. These devices offered entry into a larger world. It provided me with the pleasures of then-unknown sounds, like that day in sixth grade when I stayed home sick and played a cassette of Duran Duran’s Rio on a loop. They also promised a respite from silence. A bit later, I would inherit my parents’ sound system, which allowed me to record radio programs and play CDs. At ten, I also began reading Rolling Stone, a magazine which I subscribed to throughout high school.
Early adolescence was a formative period for me. As a chubby and socially withdrawn pre-teen, I had trouble making friends and feeling comfortable with myself. Music made me feel included during a period of time when I felt most left out. Thus I didn’t recognize my listening practices and identification reflected in the opaque, uneven codes of exclusion that make coolness hegemonic. I didn’t listen to music to amass cultural capital. I didn’t even hear that term until I started graduate school. I taped stuff off the radio, read music criticism, and slept with Depeche Mode albums tucked under my pillow to feel less alone in my bedroom.
A lot of people might relate to that sentiment. Some of those folks are my friends and a few of them circulated Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “uncool” scene from Almost Famous following the news of his sudden passing. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find footage of Hoffman’s maverick deejay breaching the water in Pirate Radio. I’ve yet to revisit many of his films because Scotty J, Phil Parma, Jon Savage, Caden Cotard, and Lancaster Dodd remain too beautiful to bear. I’m scared of meeting the guy he played in Happiness. So I settled on a loop of scenes from The Talented Mr. Ripley, Punch-Drunk Love, The Big Lebowski, Along Came Polly, and Patch Adams (the first thing I saw him in; I side with Mitch). I finally saw Hard Eight, a debut feature that suggests enough of Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision underneath all of the Scorsese references, just to watch Hoffman taunt the film’s protagonist in one scene. I realized that a whole range of male friends absorbed something in his nihilistic cool—his lank hair, his way with a cigarette, his sneer. It’s time to revisit Doubt and Capote or, failing that, Twister.
Based on my friends’ social media activity, eulogizing Hoffman happened conterminously with taking Buzzfeed quizzes. Many of my friends got Kim Deal on Matthew Perpetua’s ’90s alt-rock grrrl quiz. A few of them were Courtney Love, Liz Phair, Björk, or Shirley Manson. I was PJ Harvey and my partner got Kim Gordon. I found this particular permutation of nostalgic resurgence interesting, largely because a number of those musicians—along with Cibo Matto, Luscious Jackson, L7, and the women in Lush, as well as R&B and hip-hop artists like TLC, Aaliyah, and Missy Elliott—shaped my perception of coolness.
As a young woman, I was taken by the authority of their musicianship. The depths of Harvey’s grief on “Teclo” were so intense that I hid To Bring You My Love under my bed. I studied the Deal sisters’ musical twin-speak. I delighted in Elliott’s ability to build innovative production and throw raunchily quotable rhymes over the top of her creations. I was also taken with image. I liked being unable to predict Jennifer Finch’s hair color. I saw Cibo Matto in a segment for House of Style where they visited their favorite New York restaurants and wanted to get lost in their world, an impulse I indulged in by endlessly studying the sleeve photography for Viva! La Woman! I put on a pair of blue silk PJs and danced in my room whenever “Creep” came on the radio.
Discourses of coolness are embedded in my identity as a music fan of certain female artists, many of whom can claim some sort of subcultural status. But some colleagues and faculty in my graduate program identify as fans of commercial media properties like the Muppets, Star Wars, and Marvel Comics. This has informed their academic contributions, allowing them to bring to bear certain industrial and cultural questions about identity, authorship, legitimation, agency, creativity, collaboration, and labor. But I assume that they came to these subjects because the artifacts captured their imagination first. I also cannot remove musicians from the commercial and regulatory conditions that shape their work. In my late adolescence and early adulthood, I caught myself in the contradictions of authenticity and debates about art and commerce. In doing so, I denied corporate influences at work in the production and distribution of much of the music I enjoy.
Music engendered a sense of possibility for me. Yet as I developed as a scholar in media and cultural studies, it became more difficult to neatly differentiate between the musical texts and producers I align with and others’ fan objects. It also made it impossible to cling to binaries that conveniently avoided all of the contradictions and mess inherent to creating fundamentally commercial work for marketable audiences. This isn’t to suggest that all creators are guided by profitability in the production of art or media. But I’m unconvinced that coolness allows us to answer those questions so much as prevent us from truly confronting them. If we cannot yet dispense with coolness altogether, perhaps we can trouble the perception that it’s a term that is diametrically opposed to whatever is arbitrarily determined to be uncool. In doing so, we might open up the possibilities once closed off by such an unsatisfying and exclusionary word.
Some readers have been back in school for at least a week (hi, mom). But in Madison we start after Labor Day. Today also marks my first day TAing a new class and the first day to my last year of coursework. For many people, today represents possibility–new teachers, new classes, new school supplies, new misadventures. There’s a lot riding on it, which is actually why I prefer the second day of school. But I’m ready to get back to it. I chose my outfit, packed my lunch, and went to bed early. I also picked out some “plate” music.
Next week, my graduate program is playing a kickball game to start off the new year. As an attendant of many ASL games, I understand the importance of selecting the right song for coming up to bat. The use of pre-recorded music at sporting events fascinate me wherever I’m watching, particularly when it heightens our collective response to people challenging themselves and others to win. Remember when Aly Raisman scored lower than expected on her balance beam final and the judges scurried to review the routine after the Károlyis challenged them? During their brief deliberation, Katy Perry’s “Firework” blared in the background. That song was on a loop during the Olympics, but in that moment Perry’s song called attention to the “liveness” of the moment. It played in real time as part of the diegesis and thus sounded radically different.
When you participate in a sporting event, music is just as enveloping. It can also give you a window into the player. The sounds and lyrics people use to create or convey a certain attitude during competition says quite a bit about them (even when they pick Eminem). For me, selecting “plate” music for a kickball game was soothing, as the sport is the root of a number of gym-related childhood traumas. But I bump “plate” music wherever I go. Here are some songs that make me feel invincible, especially on days heavy with expectation.
Last night, I cuddled on the couch and read Ariel Schrag’s Awkward and Definition. I needed something to do while my computer burned the mix CDs for Kristen‘s and my Girls Rock Camp music history workshop, which we teach tomorrow. As session #1 is in full swing, it seemed fitting to read two graphic novels from a queer girl cartoonist and avowed rock music fan.
For those unfamiliar, these two books document Schrag’s first two years at Berkeley High School in the mid-90s. She composed them during the summers between each school year. Potential, which follows her junior year and Likewise, which captures her senior year, were published later. If you weren’t aware of Schrag’s work, perhaps you can recall her name being mentioned in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic” or recognize her as a writer on The L-Word. But Awkward and Definition put her on the map.
I find these two books interesting for a number of reasons. For one, the visual style changes dramatically. Awkward is sloppily put together, with characters resembling melted Precious Moments figurines. Definition has cleaner lines, surer plotting, and better defined character composition. Not that Awkward‘s messiness is in any way a disadvantage. While it may cause eye strain at times, the sheer exhilaration of a girl putting this together was enough for me. That cartoonist and chemistry enthusiast Schrag already had her own voice and vision at such a young age is inspiring to me.
There’s also the matter of Schrag’s fandom, which is a key aspect of her queer girlhood. It’s evident in who she idolizes. Evincing the era, Schrag is a big alternative rock fan who loves going to shows and acquires a Fender Stratocaster from her mom on her 16th birthday. Her idols cover her walls as well, as her bedroom becomes a shrine to L7, No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, and Juliette Lewis. It’s also interesting how she uses language to possess her idols. An early male love interest is called “my L7″ because of his coveted band t-shirts. Application of glittery make-up is referred to as “putting on my Gwen.” And Juliette Lewis is simply “my Juliette.” I find it particularly interesting that Scrag watches anything with Lewis in it, but has a particular affinity for Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers.
Schrag is also girl-crazy — identifying as bisexual, but will later come out as a lesbian — and surrounded by girl companions who fall in and out of her social circle. This is refreshing, in part because I grew up in an area where bisexual, lesbian, and transgender girls assuredly existed, but primarily remained in the closet. So perhaps I sound like a West Coast outsider, but it’s staggering to me that Schrag had so many queer and queer-friendly girlfriends she could crush on, but also call upon as friends. Having just read an article about two gay teen male friends in New York who were voted king and queen of their prom by their peers further instills me with hope.
I was also pleased by the depiction of drug use and Schrag’s engagement with the street. I didn’t do drugs in high school and received fairly strict parameters from my parents, who wouldn’t let me go to punk shows in Houston until I graduated from high school. This was primarily because gigs usually weren’t close by and because my mom worried about what dangers could befall a young girl. And while I’m more than a little surprised by how permissive Schrag’s parents were (or perhaps how little they knew about their daughter’s social activities), I’m also pleased that Schrag’s drug experimentation isn’t sensationalized. Pair this against, say, Larry Clark’s Kids, a movie I hate in part because it promises to be transgressive in its representation of urban teenagers but actually espouses a cautionary, conservative ideology (note: I dislike Requiem for a Dream for similar reasons). This isn’t to say that I approve of how often she hits the pipe. I just like that we can see a girl character partake of drugs without dying, getting raped, or contracting a disease. It’s refreshing.
Similarly, I like that Schrag and her friends are sometimes put in scary situations, but are resourceful enough to work through them. This is best exemplified when Schrag and her friend Julia attend a Bush concert (No Doubt cancelled! NO!) for Julia’s birthday. They get dropped off at the wrong venue and have to figure out how to get to the show and get home. This requires the two girls — who are also high — to walk vacant streets, take the bus, ask for help from the useless police, attempt to hail a cab, and finally get a ride home from Julia’s dad. Again, this situation is far from ideal. Yet I like to see girls be tough, resourceful, and successfully get out of bad situations.
Of course, I can’t review the two graphic novels without mentioning the exnomination of racial and class privilege. I’m not sure of Schrag’s socioeconomic background, but she does come from a politically progressive area that appears to be predominantly white. Thus it was probably easier for her to grow up queer than it is for rural, working class young people. That said, I’m still pleased that she possessed the confidence to declare her teen years important enough to capture in self-made panels teeming with wit, anxiety, and glee. I only hope Potential lives up to its title.
Today is the first installment of a new series I’d like to start here on musical cameos in movies. It’s akin to the “Scene It” posts, except these entries would only focus on musical artists who make brief but noteworthy appearances in certain movies. At my friend Jacob’s nudging, I thought the perfect inaugural entry of this series would be L7’s supporting role as a rock band in John Waters’s 1994 feature Serial Mom.
First, I’ll preface by saying that I’m not so well-versed in Waters’s singularly tacky ouevre. I saw Hairspray at some point during my childhood. I later watched the remake, which didn’t make me as mad as purists. Sure, the remake was tame. But as it’s also not a remake of the original, but as a reboot of the Broadway adaptation. Thus I don’t think of it as a Waters movie and instead view it as an enjoyable, if defanged, movie musical. I viewed Female Trouble before starting grad school, which I thought was visually arresting and at times wickedly funny, but also plodding and meandering in the second half. I happened on Pink Flamingos‘ singing asshole scene once at my parents’ house, but haven’t watched the rest of Waters’s directorial debut as yet.
I am a fan of Waters, however. He seems like a swell guy and I wish we could be friends so we could watch movies together and trade mix CDs. He’s also the central character of “Homer’s Phobia,” one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons. I can also say that as relative Waters neophyte, Serial Mom delighted me.
There’s so much going on here. For one, it’s of its era. It can easily be read alongside several American movies from the 90s that indict celebrity scandal and tabloid culture, like To Die For, Natural Born Killers, SFW, and The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. Kathleen Turner stars as seemingly perfect homemaker Beverly Sutphin, could be lumped in with lethal blondes like Madonna and Basic Instinct’s Catherine Trammell, and has a love for Godfather of Gore filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis that she shares with Waters and her son Chip (Matthew Lillard). And while Sutphin is certainly in a higher class bracket than ABC’s titular domestic goddess Roseanne, several times the movie reminded of season two’s “Sweet Dreams,” wherein matriarch Roseanne Conner wishes for five minutes alone in the bath and dreams of killing her entire family. Both women are well aware of the strain that comes for some women who try to perfectly embody the seemingly natural roles of wife and mother.
No wonder Betty Draper broke a chair on Mad Men. She couldn’t get a hold of Don.
Yet I assumed much of this might be apparent on the surface. I also anticipated that Sutphin’s excessive femininity and blood lust could align her with Kathleen Rowe Karlyn’s construction of the unruly woman. However, I was pleasantly surprised that Sutphin killed largely to protect her family instead of commiting psychotic behavior in response to feeling trapped or tied down by them. Most notably for me, she defends the honor of her daughter Misty (Ricki Lake) by killing her philandering boyfriend. What’s more, her husband, son, and, daughter are ultimately quite supportive of her. So while it’s bad to kill people, I was pleasantly surprised that this killer wasn’t pathologized or villified for her actions. It’s an unsettling sense of satisfaction, to be sure. But it’s comforting to know that Suthpin would only sink her scissors into my stomach if I really had it coming.
I was also pleased by L7’s performance as punk band Camel Lips. True to their name, the members sport considerable ‘toe further emphasized by their stretch pants. L7 confronted many people with its own caustic mutations of conventional femininity. They left David Letterman aroused and startled after an appearance on Late Night.
Leader Donita Sparks also dislodged her tampon and threw it at a disrespectful crowd at the Reading Festival, which I hope is being preserved properly. If Kathleen Hanna’s papers are getting archived, there should be a place for this artifact too. Finally, the band’s interest in surf rock and rockabilly indicate that, much like Supthin’s idealization of the 50s housewife and Waters’s love of pulp and gore, there’s nothing innocent about the past.
Recently, my friend Peter (who runs Manvertised) posted a link to the 120 Minutes Archive on Facebook. Some folks, like my friend Susan and maybe you, were way ahead of me on this one. But that didn’t keep me from squealing with glee over an evolving database of the music videos featured on MTV’s indie/underground music program. And it certainly fills a void that Pre-Durst never satisfied.
My family had cable intermittently throughout my childhood. The period in my life when having cable mattered to me was between sixth and eighth grade, which was a strange but glorious end of alternative rock and the music video era. Between 1993 to 1996, Sunday night was the couch potato highlight of my week.
I learned about 120 Minutes from my stepbrothers, who were also into Yo! MTV Raps, Headbangers Ball, and Alternative Nation. Though I knew that the show’s history stretched back into the mid-1980s, I only followed MTV’s left-of-the-dial video program in the mid-1990s. I had a television in my bedroom and no siblings to fight over the remote. As I’ve outlined previously, 120 Minutes was a big part of my Sunday night music geek routine. I’d burrow deep into bed and try to stay awake so I could absorb as much as possible. Without 120 Minutes, I might never have encountered Sonic Youth’s “Little Trouble Girl” or Cibo Matto’s “Know Your Chicken.”
And while I’d be short-sighted if I failed to notice the hip musical acts the network was pushing, I also wouldn’t know about bands like Helium, L7, Luscious Jackson, that dog., Lush, and many other hallmark bands of the period, much less pledge my allegiance to college radio.
The show informed the feminist development of this music geek. For me, the program is seventh grade. Seventh grade me, like many seventh grade girls, was a disaster. I was painfully shy but wanted to be involved with theater and, briefly, cheerleading. I painted my nails black but chewed until my cuticles bled. I was chubby, but primarily ate as a defense mechanism (in high school, I ate very little so I could be “pretty”). I had a hopeless crush on a popular boy who lived in my neighborhood, and would ride my bike by his front yard when he wasn’t home. I wanted to run with the eighth grade burn-out girls, but they wouldn’t hang. I could count my friends on one hand, and was often made fun of for being a fat kid. I cried most days when I came home from school, and usually before. When 8th grade came around, I made myself into a smart overachiever with a schedule packed with extracurricular activities. I also shopped at “preppy” retailers like the County Seat and starting eating a lot less. In short, 13-year-old me vehemently denied the existence of 12-year-old me.
Of course, 12-year-old me always existed and I still carry her with me. As I grew older, I learned to accept her and, thinking about my adolescence during modern rock’s last days, I really love her now. For one, I had style. I wore tiaras, pajama bottoms, and alligator slippers to school. I dressed up as Cleopatra for the Halloween dance when everyone else wore Yaga and shuffled to Hootie. My socks never matched. I toted around a Batman lunchbox I got from a thrift shop while visiting my father in Florida the summer before I started junior high. I wore six barrettes at a time like a rainbow. I asked my friend Kyle’s dad for all of his corduroys and cut them to fit me. I paired mechanic shirts with silver platform Skechers. I got made fun of for it, but I rocked that look.
And 12-year-old me may have run with a small group, but they were good, reliable people. Like the protagonist’s friends in Dyan Shelton’s Tall, Thin, and Blonde, they always saved a seat for me at our lunch table. And even when some of us grew apart during high school, we could still catch up whenever we saw each other. Plus, I had a cool slightly older stepbrother who’d play songs on his bass to cheer me up and make collages with me out when he’d visit. And I had a mom who gave me hugs, talked all the shit out with me, and took me to the park to scrawl out my angst on pieces of scrap paper so that I could burn them.
12-year-old me was also starting to develop good taste in music and already knew about some rad ladies. Sure it was shaped by corporate entities pushing of-the-moment artists signed to major labels and subsidiaries that took my allowance money. Rolling Stone and MTV were chief offenders. Spin was also starting to get my attention with their alternative record guide, though at this point I was unaware of college radio or downloading music and thus had to imagine what The Raincoats or Beat Happening sounded like. But I had an open mind and was learning how to record songs off the radio. Later, I’d reject nu metal on principle, have my own radio show, go to a bunch of concerts, read a lot of books, write a thesis on the Directors Label series, and put this thing together. Thanks, 120 Minutes. More importantly, thanks Alyx at 12.
As someone who works at an archive, I also appreciate the efforts independent, motivated people have made to preserve this important part of a network’s programming history and make it available to people, especially as it is now unrecognizable from its origins. The history major in me also appreciates being able to explore the rest of the series that I missed and gain a better sense of the show’s context.
There’s some stuff I miss that the archive doesn’t have. I wish the episodes were available in full, particularly the ones that featured musical guests as hosts. Things got really unpredictable and exciting when an act, or a few available band members, or two tangentally related musical artists shared space together (fans may remember Thurston Moore smashing a phone with Beck). I also liked when a band showed off their hometown, as Soul Asylum did when giving viewers a tour of Minneapolis during a 1995 taping. I liked guessing which music videos the artists’ picked out themselves and watching them grate against the latest Tripping Daisy or Frente! clip. These moments really gave viewers a larger sense of who the people were behind the records.
Most of all, I liked the show’s liveness — staged, pre-taped, or otherwise.
Because when the Johns from They Might Be Giants announced the 10th anniversary show, I felt like they were singing just to me.
And there’s plenty of other MTV programming that folks could archive. In addition to the music programming I outlined above, I’d love to see footage of Courtney Love’s 24-hour MTV2 takeover.
So while I’m happy about this archive, I’d treasure viewing fans’ VHS recordings of the show even more. As Charles R. Acland observed in his wonderful Flow column about video’s obsolescence and how media scholars must address the resultant loss of history, these tapes give us indications of a program’s text, its supertext, and the recorder’s preferences and practices. Something tells me there’s a Clearasil ad in one of those tapes and, with it, the ephemera and long-buried memories of its viewers.