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 As a chubby and socially withdrawn pre-teen, I had trouble making friends and feeling comfortable with myself.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.
So I was originally gonna roll up all cavalier-like and blurt out my opinions on Tank Girl, which I watched for the first time a few nights ago. I had some pre-conceived notions about the movie and what I’d think of it, as the film adaption of the beloved Jamie Hewlett comic is widely regarded as a commercial and critical flop.
Now I’m not entirely sure how to approach the subject matter, because a) I’m not sure how to read this movie, as it is disjointed and oftentimes inscrutable, b) I didn’t realize going into my viewing that several friends were fans of both the movie and the comic, and c) . . . I haven’t gotten around to reading the comic. I’m more than willing to read it, especially since I’m a fan of Hewlett’s work with Damon Albarn on Gorillaz and am interested in their ongoing professional relationship. I simply haven’t had the chance yet, as I just finished Truman Capote’s super-dense In Cold Blood and started Margaret Atwood’s promising The Blind Assassin. If anyone has a copy they’d like to push into my hands, my palms are flat and open.
But I still wanted to see the movie and write about it because:
1. Lori Petty stars as Rebecca Buck and I wish her career had taken off instead of stalling around the time of this movie’s 1995 release. While she’s recently run into some legal troubles and I still haven’t seen Point Break or Prey for Rock’N’Roll, I’ve long had a soft spot for this tough, mouthy, gender-queer tomboy ever since her turn as Kit Keller in A League of Their Own. It’s too bad that she was replaced by Sandra Bullock in Demolition Man and that Gwen Stefani sounds just like her, with both women having more visible, financially successful careers.
2. Speaking of Stefani, did she rip off Tank Girl’s style to cultivate her own look, because oh my damn do they look alike.
But maybe I’m being unfair in pitting Petty/Tank Girl against Stefani against one another and instead should remember the cultural context from which they were formed. I’m reminded of my thesis adviser Mary Kearney, whose dissertation focused on contemporary discourses around girlhood and youth culture. Joy Van Fuqua draws on Kearney’s work in her essay “‘What Are Those Little Girls Made Of?’ The Powerpuff Girls and Consumer Culture.” In her discussion of the show’s popularity, Van Fuqua borrows from Kearney to suggest that, like many other girl characters during the 1990s, Bubbles, Buttercup, and Blossom had to embody both genders in order to succeed in athletics and other male-dominated activities.
3. Speaking of promising actresses, Naomi Watts plays her sidekick and was a total nobody in the states when the movie was originally released. She’s also rockin’ a brunette bob haircut, which I appreciate.
4. Speaking of wacky ladies, Ann Magnuson makes an appearance as a madame who runs a state-of-the-art brothel where folks like Iggy Pop run around in drag and the talent break out into Busby Berkeley-esque routines to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It.”
5. Speaking of musicians, the soundtrack is an alternative rock behemoth. Hard to imagine many of the artists represented here got radio play in 1995. Alternative was commercially successful, allowing rock music to splinter off in various, musically diverse directions. Hootie was a major player, but Pulp could get a hit single. Beck was at this point a one-hit wonder, but was working on an era-defining record that would come out the following year. The bubble hadn’t burst yet. Man, 1995 was a strange and amazing time. Bush, Björk, Veruca Salt, L7, Belly, Portishead, Hole. They were all on commercial radio playlists and they’re also on this soundtrack.
6. Speaking of Hole, note that Courtney Love was the movie’s music consultant. Now, I’m not entirely sure what her title means here. Titles like “music consultant” and “music supervisor” tend to be flexible. The latter term is usually held by people who work closely with the director, the editor, and multiple representatives from various record labels, as well as help tend to legal matters like acquiring publishing rights, and clearing songs to be used in the movie and often the accompanying soundtrack.
My hunch is that Love’s duties were picking what songs she liked and would work with the movie, but had little involvement in the production. After all, she was a busy lady who was trying to heal from the death of her husband, raise her daughter, become a respected actress, and headline Lollapalooza with her band Hole. I don’t think she had time to field phone calls with label execs, although I’d like to imagine what those conversations might be like.
7. Oh, and since the first six points all involved women, let’s add the cherry on top. Tank Girl was directed by a woman named Rachel Talalay.
But as far as reading this movie . . . hummina. I don’t know what I saw. I know it takes place in what is now a not-too-distant, dystopian future and involves our fearless heroine leading a rag-tag group of girls and mutant kangaroo boys against a corrupt faction that control the earth’s water supply. Still with me? Here’s the trailer.
So, things I enjoyed or found interesting about the movie.
1. Naomi Watts kicks ass as Jet Girl. At first shy and fretful, she learns to embrace her intellect and technological savvy and develops the confidence to take charge of the crew and help beat the cast of baddies.
2. Tank Girl has strong relationships with Jet Girl and Rebecca, Tank Girl’s boyfriend’s young daughter. Homosocial bonding and female mentorship, holla!
3. OMG, the costumes. They could be a chapter in a dissertation on third-wave feminism’s fragmentive, performative, and self-reflexive relationship with fashion (note: if such a chapter exists, I want to read it). Tank Girl never wears the same outfit or hair color twice, and her wardrobe toys with historical periods, film genres, youth culture movements, often playing with age, gender, and race as well.
4. I can’t tell if Ann Magnuson’s Madame, who briefly kidnaps and attempts to employ Rebecca, is a sex-positive feminist, a critique against the then-timely rise of media’s interest in d0-me feminism, or just morally bankrupt.
And then there were things I hated.
1. While Tank Girl’s costuming is fascinating, that’s really the extent of her characterization. Much of this seems to be the fault of the writing. Petty is engaging enough, but Tank Girl is written as less a complex action heroine and more of a buzzword-and-slogan dispenser. Thus, she brings to mind characters like Itchy and Scratchy‘s Poochie, who was created to make fun of corporate-friendly extreme, in-your-face, subcultural cash cows. Perhaps her perceived lack of depth speaks to the awkward process of adapting a comic book into a movie, but her cinematic flatness betrays the torpedo bras.
2. Tank Girl also kicks a disappointing lack of ass here and has questionable methods. I can’t speak to her defense strategies in the comic, but the movie repeatedly has her lure disgusting men with her feminine wiles. Sometimes they get kicked in the balls, but she still shows them her bra or promises sexual favors beforehand.
3. Man, how did Malcolm MacDowell fool people into thinking he could act? He’s the villainous Kesslee here and is making himself quite the ham sandwich. Some may bring up Al Pacino and note that certain actors deliver progressively broader performances as they age, but I think MacDowell’s accent played a role in snowing audiences as well. I think his Britishness even convinced people he was better in If . . . and A Clockwork Orange than he actually was. Charismatic and handsome? Yes. Once a great actor? I don’t think so.
4. I feel like there’s something racially problematic about the mutant kangaroo soldiers who take up with Tank Girl’s crew. Thoughts?
In short, Tank Girl makes for a maddening but interesting spectatorial experience. Now to get a hold of the source material . . .
Summer is a party-time kind of season. It’s also a road-trip kind of season. Recently, I lent an item for both a party and a road trip to some friends that will be the subject of this post. It’s Rhino Records’ girl group anthology One Kiss Can Lead to Another. 120 classic and obscure girl group tracks from the 1960s. These songs are timeless and go with everything. Not a morning person? Throw this on for your morning commute. Having a party? This is sure to please. Doing chores around the house and want to wink knowingly at your own domestication? Here’s your soundtrack.
Yes, this collection has been around for a long time (summer 2005). It’s even been around my house for a long time — my partner got it for me Christmas 2007. It’s a little pricey — retail value is around $70 — but in my estimation, it’s worth it. It is at once a fun party favor guaranteed to get people dancing, a site of feminist discourse, an incredibly well-preserved piece of musical history, and a tasty pop culture artifact. And for all you commodity fetishists who like your semiology, I have to point out that the collection comes in a hat box, each volume is packaged to look like a compact mirror with a reflective panel inside, and each disc is designed to look like a powder puff. You even get a diary that goes with it that contains multiple critical essays and key information on each song.
I admit that when I originally received this collection, I was a little disheartened by what I originally perceived as a very limited notion of gender in popular music. Ironically enough, I was cooking when I listened to the first disc and was like “all these songs are about girls being subservient to men.” Later, when Vivian Girls appropriated the girl group sound to make garage rock and shoegaze’s indebtedness to the Spector Sound more pronounced (and I had a good two years of post-structuralist theory under my belt), I revisited this collection and was pleasantly surprised at just how much was going on.
The first thing that immediately hit me about the collection is how good it sounded. The folks at Rhino took great pains to make sure these songs, some of which were all but lost because the last few out-of-print copies and master tapes were damaged, destroyed, or missing, sound brand new. These songs were originally recorded, arranged, produced, and mastered with the car stereo in mind, and damn if they don’t sound as shiny and clean as the lines on a 1961 mint-condition Corvette.
The other thing that struck me about the collection is how the term “girl group” is less a catch-all term for female pop and pop-informed R&B acts primarily active during the first half of the 1960s and actually a pretty diverse, borderless signifier. All kinds of interesting influences and sounds are in this collection — songs informed by pop, R&B, country, blues, rockabilly, folk, bossa nova, jazz and songs that would help to inform dub, reggae, hip hop, and electronic music.
While I have yet only confirmed that two pieces on this collection were actually sampled in other songs (Daedelus lifted the vocal, hand clap, and drum tracks of The Pin-Ups’ “Lookin’ for Boys” for “Fair-Weather Friends,” Saint Etienne borrowed from Dusty Springfield’s “I Can’t Wait to See My Baby’s Face” for “Nothing Can Stop Us Now”), I am also struck by how sample-friendly a lot of these songs are. The Flirtations’ “Nothing But a Heartache” and The Jewels’ “Opportunity,” among many others, could easily be incorporated into any hip hop track (specifically one that 9th Wonder is producing).
Which also lets you in on how weird and ground-breaking a lot of these songs are. Listen to the reverb-laden a capella opener for The Chiffons’ “Nobody Knows What’s Goin’ On (In My Mind But Me)” and you get a sense for how ESG and Luscious Jackson came to their sound. Keep your ears open for the eerie theramin arrangement in Julie Driscoll’s stately break-up anthem “I Know You Love Me Not.” A song like The Bitter Sweets’ “What a Lonely Way to Start the Summertime” has a hollowed-out, haunted psychedelic sound that may have left quite an impression on Broadcast. Songs like “Nightmare” by The Whyte Boots easily draw a line from girl groups to L7. Some dance songs, like The Goodies’ “Sophisticated Boom Boom” and Marsha Gee’s “Peanut Duck” have an effortless quirky cool to them that no hipster can fake. And that doesn’t even get into The Tammys admittedly un-PC rave-up “Egyptian Shumba” that The Black Kids covered, but couldn’t match the original’s manic glee.
In addition to obscure songs by minor recording artists once left to dust in storage vaults, you get little-heard songs by bigger names. Behold the woozy drum syncopation with Cher’s deep alto in “Dream Baby.” Behold the sugary urgency of Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Drop Out.” Behold the cinematic majesty of The Shangri-Las’ “The Train to Kansas City.” Listen for The Supremes’ “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” and The Ronettes’ “He Did It” (one of the few early cuts Rhino could get a hold of without having to involve producer Phil Spector). Get dirty with Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” and Lulu’s “I’ll Come Running” (which features future Zeppelin ax-man Jimmy Page on guitar). Even folks like mod it-girl Twiggy got a shot at the pop charts with the proper little ditty “When I Think of You.”
There are also songs that were obscure and later became popular when other people (perhaps unsurprisingly, primarily white artists) covered them. P.P. Arnold got to Cat Stevens’s “The First Cut is the Deepest” first. Former Cookies member Earl-Jean scored a minor hit with Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “I’m Into Somethin’ Good” a year before Herman’s Hermits rode it the top of the pop charts in 1965. Dee Dee Warwick made minimal commotion with “You’re No Good” before Betty Everett and Linda Ronstadt got ahold of it.
Also, not all of these songs are about boys who treat girls bad. Yes, that’s a component and the folks at Rhino would be ignoring a huge lyrical motif and its pre-second wave context by omitting the tracks about fellas who “lie sly, slick, and shy,” as The Velvelettes sing in “Needle in a Haystack.” And by putting these songs in a larger context, lyrics like “I know he’s cheating on me, but I don’t care” in The Angels’ “I Adore Him” play both dated and baldly disturbing.
I also think by acknowledging the racial aspects of girl group may also help confront the fact that many of these groups were comprised of African American girls, many of whom had to deal with the ingrained lack of social or economic value placed on the romantic love and family units built by people of color in white society. A song like The Fabulettes’ “Try the Worrying Way,” which is about how a heavy-set woman becomes skinny as a result of her partner’s infidelity, cannot be read without this context and becomes profoundly sad with it.
The raced component, alongside issues of age, is crucial to understanding what girl groups contributed — a space for young women and young women of color, many of whom were working class and had minimal opportunities in the job market, to be a part of the work force. This isn’t to absent that many of these groups were designed, produced, and controlled by men. But some were not, or found ways out of it.
But there’s much more going on in these songs than waiting for boys to shape up. For one, there are a lot of break-up anthems. There are elegant songs like “Walking In Different Circles” from Goldie and the Gingerbreads. There are poignant odes to post-break-up autonomy like Reparata and the Delrons’ “I’m Nobody’s Baby Now.” There are also almost-love songs like Sandie Shaw’s “Girl Don’t Come” (which was written and arranged by Burt Bacharach). There are maternal warnings of men’s true nature in Cathy Saint’s “Big Bad World.” There are humorous rejections in The Hollywood Jills’ “He Makes Me So Mad.” And, importantly, there are sneering kiss-offs and odes to female bonding like Donna Lynn’s “I’d Much Rather Be With the Girls” (originally written by and for The Rolling Stones).
For me, it’s not hard to read all of these break-up songs and anthems to being single and out with girlfriends as having a queer element to them. The renouncement of stupid boys, or heterosexual courtship altogether, is heightened by girls singing to, for, and most importantly, with one another. In close proximity. In intimate spaces. In matching outfits.
You also get lots of songs about death, many, like The Goodees’ “Condition Red,” that recount dark, grisly tales of parental disapproval, juvenile delinquency, and racing accidents gone horribly wrong. This was the era where boys beefed it on motorcycles, after all. Indeed, this teen angst bullshit has a body count.
You even get critiques about the fleetingness of youth, the plastic lies of feminine consumerism, and the urgency of action in songs like Toni Basil’s anthem “I’m 28,” which I fully intend to sing drunk at my birthday party in two years.
Oddly enough, she was 23 when she recorded it. She’s 65 now and still working. I think she did okay for herself.
But there are also celebratory songs about love (many explicitly heterosexual, some more ambiguous). These songs are important too, particularly because most of these songs were sung (and, in some cases, written) by unmarried teenagers. Though marriage was the stated goal in many of these songs, it hadn’t happened yet. Thus, it was pretty easy to dismiss these songs, performed by teenage girls, as frivilous. But they aren’t. The feelings, regardless of how artfully or artlessly worded, are real and amplified by mammoth orchestration and pop-song immediacy. Take a song like The Girlfriends’ “My One and Only Jimmy Boy.” A giddy, up-tempo ode to love on the surface, its hook, soaring vocals, and wall-of-sound production takes teen love to “Hulk smash” levels of power and might.
And, of course, a lot of these songs were written by women. Carole King, in addition to singing two songs included in the anthology, wrote many of these hits, along with fellow Brill Building dwellers Ellie Greenwich and Cynthia Weil and many other independent female songwriters.
Thus, this collection has the best that any feminist music geek could hope for — sites of discourse that have, to borrow from American Bandstand, “a good beat and you can dance to it.”