When I originally started thinking about artists who might expand the definition of what a diva is, the first person who came to mind was the subject of this post. Who else but a diva could be seen in concert halls and magazines as well as museum exhibits, obscure sitcoms, and cultish b-movies? Campy, profane, versed in popular culture, obsessed with the fragmented nature of female personae, and tailed by a devoted audience, Magnuson definitely seems to meet the requirements of being diva.
Like Wynne Greenwood (aka Tracy + the Plastics), Magnuson made a name for herself through the available art scene, specifically by managing Club 57 in the East Village during the early 1980s. At the time, Club 57 — which originally claimed its residence in a church basement — was a burgeoning scene comprised of folks like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, the B-52s, Klaus Nomi, and Fab Five Freddy. Magnuson and her patrons were obsessed with the radioactive kitsch of their Cold War-era adolescence and she would often arrange theme nights like day-glo erotic art show and Elvis Presley hootenannies or turn the venue into a putt-putt golf or a tiki lounge. During this time, she also became a part of Pulsallama, a percussion-based girl group that Magnuson thought of as an anti-band rebelling against the “fashionable primitivism” Malcolm McLaren was espousing with Bow Wow Wow, who he was managing (re: manipulating) at the time. Magnuson had left the group by the time they made “The Devil Lives in My Husband’s Body,” but you can get a good sense of what they were about by listening to this.
A key trait for any diva to me seems to be the ability to inhabit various roles, sometimes in opposition to one another, through performance. Folks might be quick to offer up a better-known pop icons like Madonna, Christina Aguilera, and Beyoncé, but let’s not forget Magnuson who often differed from these women by using her chameleon-like ability to create characters that poked fun at female stereotypes, materialism, confessionalism, and the hollowness of fame. Pairing up with Tom Rubnitz, she put together “Made for Television” in 1981 for PBS’s Alive From Off Center. The 15-minute piece, which simulates late-night channel surfing, features believeable send-ups of televangelism, soap operas, and game shows with Magnuson playing all the parts. Particularly with regard to how hollow and alienating our collective fixation of fame can be, it reminds me of Eileen Maxson’s “Lost Broadcasts,” which depicts the artist as a reality show hopeful whose staggeringly candid audition tape is being fast-forwarded and talked over by a disinterested casting agent fielding a phone call.
I cannot locate “Made For Television” online, but I have seen it in exhibition. If you hear about it coming to your town, I suggest you see it. If you find it on the Interwebz, share with the group.
In the mid-1980s, Magnuson got together with Mark Kramer to form Bongwater, a band where this kind of performance was all too common.
Ever the actress, she would off-set duties with Bongwater with turns in the ABC Jamie Lee Curtis/Richard Lewis sitcom Anything But Love, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, and The Hunger as well as Susan Seidelman’s beloved Desperately Seeking Susan and Making Mr. Right (which totally looks like a movie I should see).
In 1995, Magnuson released her first solo album, The Luv Show, which was apparently inspired by the mad-cap narratives, sex-crazed vixens, and pop-art shine of Russ Meyer movies. It certainly explains the cover, though no explanation needs to be given for songs like “Miss Pussy Pants.”
While Magnuson was never going to be a mainstream talent, it’s heartening to know that our media culture had room for a smart, cheeky lady all too willing to represent in the margins. Actually, they still seem to have the room for her, as Magnuson released her second solo album Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories in 2006, embarks on cabaret tours, and does occasional film work. More importantly, Magnuson seems all too willing to deconstruct the very idea of the diva, who she is, who she pretends to be, who she represents, and where her markers of identity blur and splinter. She might be Cindy Sherman‘s kind of diva. She’s definitely my kind of diva.