During my brief trip to Texas, I went to the video premiere for Christeene’s “African Mayonnaise” at Cheer Up Charlie’s. I was pretty excited to see the final product, as I knew it was a tense shoot. I also heard it was Christeene’s best video to date. I can vouch for it. Given Christeene’s impressive videography, that’s saying something. It is an exhilarating video. It has dense, beautiful imagery that requires multiple viewings to unpack all the stuff that’s going on. It demands you watch it more than once. It’s a statement video, one that I might place alongside Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. But it’s a lot more fun to watch than most statement videos, particularly since they tend to be overlong yet short on ideas, Artistically Significant yet ultimately shallow, and include dialogue. Get to the hook already!
The song is about celebrity–the mutual dependence between star and fan, the malleability of image, the tricky business of turning a person into a constellation of symbols, the star’s contentious relationship with the camera, the acrid deliciousness of scandal. The video mirrors that concept in its attempts to create iconographic imagery and reveal that those images are made possible through surveillance. In addition to what PJ Raval and his crew shot and edited, the video also includes footage–mostly taken from smart phones–from fans and onlookers.
One of the major themes of the video–perhaps Christeene’s entire M.O.–is invasion. The video shows Christeene and her back-up dancers shimmying in front of the Austin Motel and sashaying through a food court, a supermarket, a barber shop, a hair salon, a gym, a patio bar, the UT South Mall, Starbucks, a Scientology center. Christeene also poses in front of the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe and is displayed on a television monitor placed in a chicken coop apparently belonging to the artist. I don’t see malevolence behind these moments of invasion, though some of the men do look uncomfortable about receiving dances from Christeene and her minions. I even think there’s potential moments for community formation. Certainly the dance party at the end of the video celebrates Austin’s queer scene. But I see such gestures of good will and inclusion in Christeene high-fiving a woman at the gym and waving to a young girl at the grocery store. I think the collaborative nature of the video’s shoot reflects this spirit as well. In taking a piece of Christeene, many people are part of the process of constructing her.
But the charged moments–what made the film infamous in friend circles before its premiere–were the scuffles with authority. Police officers escorted Christeene and the crew off the premises during the shoot at various locations. In particular, staff members at the Church of Scientology of Texas locked their doors and confiscated equipment. Folks also harassed the star and crew with hate speech. At least one person cried godless and I like that this moment is reframed as a joke about the stupidity and destructiveness of queerphobia. I think such moments of brutality and intolerance, and the willingness to share them and package them as part of a music video, are what’s so powerful about this clip. Celebrity may have power over us, but it’s useless without people using that platform to challenge larger social and institutional problems. It’s thrilling to watch a queer artist, dressed in unconvincing drag, confront such phobia in public. Christeene does it through humor and an invitation of inclusion, but the stakes are fucking high in the war against individual freedom. Cops might rough you up. People might yell at you because you tucked in your dick and flaunted your ass in public. Cult practitioners may take your stuff and make threats. It happens off-camera.
Christeene also reclaims space as a star. Stars often accommodate the context they’re in, particularly at red carpet events and photo shoots. Teams of people make them into whatever they need to be for a film premiere, magazine interview, or concert. Even stars photographed without makeup is a construction no different from a band breaking out an acoustic guitar to do an “unplugged” performance. Stripping down is as much an act as wearing a safe Armani gown. I don’t know if many would label Christeene a star. She’s not starring in an action movie based on a board game, though I’d love her to play Queen Frosteene in Candyland: The Reckoning. She’s not performing for a televised award show, though she’d show up in an outfit at least as eye-catching as Björk’s swan dress. She doesn’t have a hit album, though I think that might come. Have you heard her music? The production’s really good and the singles are ready for the clubs.
But Christeene is a star to me, perhaps in the way that Courtney Love and Sinéad O’Connor insisted upon their own fame and found an audience with their outsize talent and personality. Christeene wasn’t groomed for celebrity. Quite frankly, I don’t think she has interest in grooming of any kind. Yet she has become a star for some on the basis of her formidable imagination and her total ownership of this invented persona. It continues to blow my mind that Christeene and Rebecca Havemeyer share Paul Soileau’s body. Frankly, I’m intimidated by the kind of creative person who can breathe these beings into existence even if I’m thrilled that such a person can take pop iconography and make something truly punk out of it. That’s probably why I write about it instead.
But actually, the challenge to write about Christeene is also exciting for me. Lokeilani Kaimana might attest that it’s hard to do. A friend of mine at school recently did a job talk about sketch comedy and used Funny or Die as a case study. I wondered how a figure like Christeene, who used the site as a distribution platform, might disrupt how we conceptualize FoD’s viewership and comedy more broadly. I attempted to explain Christeene to the speaker and the audience, grasping at words like “bad drag,” “gold tooth,” and “rectum.”
She’s especially difficult to talk about in terms of race. I believe this is deliberate on the part of the artist, but no less dicey in execution. “African Mayonnaise” refers to the mixture of cum and fecal matter on a spent penis after anal sex. The use of the term “African” to connote darkness and shit is … yikes. Many might say it’s outright racist, and I’m not sure I have an argument against such an appraisal. In a lot of ways, Christeene’s dangerous play with race as a white drag performer reminds me of Nitsuh Abebe’s excellent piece on CocoRosie and artistic risk. There are certainly perils and limits to playing with race, not the least of which is alienating an audience.
I don’t want to applaud these artists and call them brave or misunderstood simply for making people angry or uncomfortable. I know their work might play into rather than challenge other people’s racist assumptions. But I think there’s something valuable to not only acknowledging that such assumptions exist in the culture, but that they must be confronted, mutated, and roughed up in the process (working with a gay filmmaker of color who was a cinematographer on Trouble the Water doesn’t hurt either). Anyone can make millions from an anthem about individuality and perseverance that makes vague claims toward and cynically leaches off of a queer audience. But it takes something more to position yourself as a star and base such fame on the abjection of stardom.
Some may make comparisons between Lady Gaga’s crutches and Christeene becoming someone else’s (or her own) santorum. For one, what an uninspired comparison. For another, celebrating one’s own abjection, framing it as explicitly queer, and making angry, giddy, political, participatory art out it feels a lot more transgressive to me than some of the music passing as such these days. She may never win a Grammy, but I’m no less challenged, outraged, and awestruck. Sounds like pop to me.
Followers of this blog probably know that I’m a fan of fellow Houstonian Beyoncé. To my mind, Slate music critic Jody Rosen is right to call the last decade in popular music the Beyoncés. In a recent column for Bitch, Sarah Jaffe trumpeted her praises and recalled Sara Stroo’s Bitch Tapes mix organized around songs about getting dressed, which included “Freakum Dress.” I’ve written a bit on her myself, most notably a response to Dayo Olopade’s piece in The Root about whether the pop star is the heir(ess) to Michael Jackson’s legacy.
All this Beyoncé chatter got me thinking about two music videos in particular. Though the (de)racialized dimensions of constructing gender performance define her work, these two clips are especially noteworthy.
The first is “Freakum Dress,” which takes its name from a slang term that refers to a tight, short number. A freakum dress is a companion to fuck-me pumps, though I think cheap material and guady design are purposely employed for effect and would note that this is yet another instance where B brings urban black vocabulary into the mainstream. I don’t like the message of the song, which advises women with roving-eyed male partners to objectify themselves to ensure fidelity. The two effeminate male attendants who dress B give me pause as well, as they obviously abide by the stereotype of the gay man as his female friends’ accessory and mediator for heterosexual courtship. But I think the racial and ethnic diversity and costuming on this one is interesting, particularly when B dons professorial bifocals at the end. Plus her lipgloss applicator lights up, which is pretty rad.
Directed by Ray Kay and Beyoncé
Then we have “Why Don’t You Love Me?” which I think is one of the more interesting videos I’ve seen in recent memory. Around the time of its release, I remember my friend Kristen at Dear Black Woman, made a characteristically astute observation I hope she elaborates on at some point. She commented on how B is ingratiating herself into the iconography of the post-war era white housewife, a role traditionally off limits to black women in media representations. To put it reductively, she’s Betty Draper instead of Carla. I get some Kenneth Anger in there as well, though perhaps without the gay misogyny film critic Pauline Kael accuses him and his peers of in an essay collected in I Lost It at the Movies.
“Why Don’t You Love Me?”
I Am . . . Sasha Fierce: Platinum Edition
Directed by Melina Matsoukas
This time next week, I’ll be presenting a conference paper at Console-ing Passions. Thus, between it and my stint at Bitch, I’m a little stretched at the moment. I do have a personal goal to rewatch Times Square this weekend and put together a post. Ever the student, I thought it would be fun to spotlight two ladies who are teaching me how to do some cool things. Maybe they can help you too, especially if you’re looking to whale on Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solos in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” or learn the moves to Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope.”
Here’s Kelly Rosenthal walking us through how to shred on “Beat It.”
And here’s Ladia Yates teaching us how to tip on the tightrope.
I guess I should care about Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s nine-minute music video for “Telephone.” Gaga created the concept with director Jonas Åkerlund. Gaga and B are lesbian partners on the run. But . . . ugh. Okay, I’ll briefly outline my thoughts.
1. Since Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” many pop stars have attempted to make lengthy, elaborate, concept music videos work. I can do without all of them, including “Thriller.” Yes, it’s one of the most popular music videos of all time. But I think Jackson’s transformation and the dance routines could stand alone without the slasher movie date night plot, although it’s worth it for his intimation that he’s “not like other guys.”
2. The lesbian jailbird subplot seems subversive but it doesn’t play out that way to me. Most of the actresses are normatively feminine, which plays into the long-standing heterosexual male fandom of the women in prison film genre that the video is hailing. In addition, they’re ornamental, meant to bolster Gaga’s edgy pop star image. If you need any further evidence, witness the “butch” that makes out on (not with) Lady Gaga in the prison yard.
3. I love Gaga’s yellow dye job, which I first saw at the Grammys. As if her platinum blonde tresses and black eyebrows weren’t enough to reveal the hair color of conventional white femininity to be unnatural, she takes its fakeness to a more lurid extreme.
4. Also, Gaga’s telephone headdress is pretty sweet.
5. I think all the product placements speak for themselves.
6. Supposedly, Gaga and Beyoncé are in a romantic relationship here. And this is somewhat interesting in terms of Beyoncé’s career trajectory, as there was a rumor several years back that she was considering starring in a screen adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Sapphic Victorian romance Tipping the Velvet. But they don’t seem like a couple to me. There’s no shared intimacy, no easy rapport. In fact, apart from them joining hands at the end of the video in a clear homage to Thelma and Louise, they really don’t interact at all. Oh, except when Beyoncé feeds Gaga or chauffeurs her criminal girlfriend to their next crime seat. B may sit behind the wheel, but she’s driving Miss Gaga.
7. Also, Beyoncé looks like a real girl doll here. A real girl doll abiding by white people’s notions of what “good” hair looks like and what make-up palettes are flattering. She moves like a robot too. In fairness, both pop stars do, but I still think that B is following Gaga’s lead.
8. I’m not sure about what to do with Gaga and sandwich-making. Perhaps it’s getting at the grotesqueries of processed foods like Wonder Bread and condiments. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the soul-deadening routinization of feminized domestic labor, thus why she’s situated in what looks like a prison kitchen.
9. Thinking back on processed foods, note that Gaga and B’s mass murder takes place at a diner. For one, the diner is a site of fetishized Americana and thus a symbol they might be attempting to destroy (or at least reconfigure, as evidenced by Gaga’s stars and stripes hippie chick get-up). But also notice also that B is Gaga’s decoy and that B snares a black man with her feminine wiles. This man, like many other patrons of color, is killed because the perpetrators slipped poison in his food. Note the racial connotations of what was on his plate too: biscuits, gravy, grits. In other words, highly caloric Southern cooking that often gets associated with particular African American communities, perhaps of which Houstonians like Beyoncé might associate.
Apparently this saga will continue. Let’s hope Beyoncé makes Gaga her driver in the next installment.
Attention holiday shoppers, ’80s nostalgists, and feminist music geeks! Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, and Cyndi Lauper went Barbie for Mattel’s Ladies of the ’80s collection. Apparently this was announced late last month, but I didn’t hear about it until checking Caryn Rose‘s Twitter feed last night.
So, as with most things, I’m a bit ambivalent about this collection. For one, it’s hard for me to imagine pre-pubescent playing with these dolls. Furthermore, with the collection’s bent toward ’80s nostalgia, there’s a good chance that girls today don’t know who these rockin’ ladies are (though I hope today’s parents are exposing their children to this music — I know many of the campers at GRCA this summer knew who Debbie, Joan, and Cyndi were when I taught the music history workshops with my friend Kristen).
I also take issue with how the women’s features have been homogenized to look more like Barbie. While this seems appropriate for Harry, as she has delicate features and was very slender during her days with Blondie, I’d appreciate it if Lauper was curvier and maintained her multi-colored mane. Jett’s costuming is fine, but I’d like her mullet to be more pronounced. Also, get the lady a leather jacket, please. And maybe the rest of The Runaways to reunite with her.
There’s also the issue of price. After a quick glance at Barbie’s Web site, it looks as though the average price for a doll is around $20. While hardly inexpensive for some folks, the retail value of the Ladies of the ’80s collection is $35 a rocker chick. Imagine how the price would go up if they decided to create and market ’80s-era girl bands, like The Go-Gos.
Let’s not overlook race either. It looks as though Mattel only considered white women when selecting the female pop stars that best defined the era. Where’s Janet Jackson or Tina Turner, to name but two examples? Also, I’d like an expansion of the collection to include male musical artists. How about starting with Michael Jackson and Prince?
And finally, there’s the issue of turning these women into dolls at all. Now, I was never much of a doll enthusiast as a girl. I understand that feminist and doll collector are not mutually exclusive identity markers (after all, “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy” is my favorite Simpsons episode). Still, it’s hard for me to see the collection and not think of how this group of punk-y women and their individual contributions to popular music challenged how women could look and sound in media culture are being normalized and exploited for corporate gains.
But, as Erica Rand points out in her wonderful book, Barbie’s Queer Accessories, the cultural limitations of the doll are defined by the collector, not the corporation.
Here’s hoping that some collectors use their imaginations to maximize these doll’s progressive or even transgressive potential. With any luck, the dolls will have formed a band, cured cancer, come out, gone bald, or dyed green in some homes by the end of the holiday season.