When Vampire Weekend released Modern Vampires of the City late last spring, several critics praised the album and group’s burgeoning maturity. The markers were easy to hear—the multi-textured production aesthetic, the religious references, the desire to nest, the mourning of geography lost to memory, the jolting intimacies of road trip arguments, the extracted wisdom teeth. Their third album is great. I was particularly struck by Rostram Batmanglij and Ezra Koenig’s evolution as composers. Their work with producer Ariel Rechtshaid is confident and balanced. They motivate the varied sonic elements and flourishes on this record by giving them a sense of space. Koenig continues to improve as a songwriter as well, shading his stories and monologues with rich character detail and incessant melody.
I stopped short of using “mature” to describe the album. What does that word mean in this context? Is a quartet of Columbia alum older and therefore wiser simply because they started meditating on God, mortgages, and mortality in their late 20s? Or was it that they became better at editing themselves in the studio? So often, “maturity” seems bound up in discourses of refinement and respectability. If that’s the case, what do we do with a track like “Diane Young,” a short, kaleidoscopic freakout about being cut down in the prime of life that sounds a bit like George Michael’s “Faith”?
How is maturity gendered? Last year, I kept returning to Fiona Apple’s excellent 2012 album The Idler Wheel… I love a lot of things about that record. Since female vocals were my transitional object, I focus on her voice. Apple’s lower register was always a sign of her maturity. When she started her recording career as a teenager, some dismissed it as precocious or pathologized it as a remnant of the sexual violence she survived as a child. But as Apple has gotten older, there’s such variety to her low notes. Sometimes they fray out of fatigue or boredom. Sometimes they land like bullets. Sometimes they curl up from anxiety or erotic anticipation. Her upper register is beautifully elastic and without vanity. Her ear for phrasing continues to sharpen, gracefully making conversation and inner monologue swerve, dip, and pivot like a choreographer.
But what I identify with most about Idler is how evocatively Apple’s lyrics capture the uncertainty that comes from getting older. You may accumulate experience as you age. People may perceive you as wise when they look upon the gray streaks in your hair and the drawn lines upon your face. But you may not feel wise when you’re crying over dinner, losing yourself in a person, or sitting alone in your apartment. In those moments, you don’t always feel mature. And if maturity is bound up in certain rites of passage and markers of fiscal responsibility—marriage, parenthood, property acquisition—that you haven’t achieved or can’t meet, you might feel pretty childish.
Yet you may also know yourself more. You may have a better sense of your preferences, behavioral cues, bad habits, or scripts. You may know better what you look for in companionship. You may better understand who you can trust with multiple dimensions of yourself and who you can’t. You may stop trying to impress people or compare yourself to your perception of others’ successes. You may get better at listening and articulating need and learning from past mistakes. That might mean the wrinkles and streaks that line and shade your face represent a wisdom that comes from ambivalence.
Being young and famous seems like the worst. It seems like such a fleeting, exhaustive, uncertain thing to hang your identity upon. It plays chicken with failure. The tonal shift between Justin Bieber’s two mug shots illustrates this nicely, as well as the wrecked complexion and bewildered gaze in both photographs. It’s why Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” sounds like a funeral dirge.
I’m currently researching female pop star fragrance collections. At the moment, I’m exploring how Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears’ respective licensing arrangements with Coty, Inc. and Elizabeth Arden influenced this paratextual extension of postfeminist celebrity labor. As I’ve been digging through the trades, I’ve been most struck by how Spears’ partnership with Elizabeth Arden served as a way to allay industrial and cultural anxiety surrounding her declining musical career and mental health in the mid- to late 2000s. At the same time, sustaining a fragrance collection puts pressure on pop stars to reinvent and fragment themselves with each campaign. One fragrance is not enough. The market relies upon turning pop stars into brands that are supported by fractured, regenerative sexiness and discursively invisible manufacturing practices.
In American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence’s character professes to love the smell of top coat, which is “perfume-y but there’s also something rotten.” Cosmetics promise us youth and newness, but their properties change as we wear them on our skin. My wrists smell differently at the end of the day from when I apply an invigorating spritz to them as part of my morning routine.
Fiona Apple doesn’t have her own fragrance collection. When she kissed off the VMAs in 1997, she revoked her chances for such licensing ventures. I feel guilty that this was the moment when I started to like Apple. I was skeptical of Apple when her debut album, Tidal, came out in 1996. Though I was happy to see a wave of angry young women seize the air, I was concerned about how this might get co-opted and homogenized. I was also incredulous of her age, perhaps for similar reasons why people take issue with Lorde. What if people latched onto her, only to drain her resources and cast her aside before she turned 25?
If “respectability” is hegemonic, then how do we understand immaturity? I want to resist constructing a simple binary that casts it as maturity’s opposite, particularly because the demarcations between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood aren’t so neatly delineated. I keep replaying another VMA moment over in my head. Miley Cyrus’ performance late last summer upset me. I carried it with me into the classroom the following fall, often referring to it or to her trajectory and confronting the performance directly in a lecture I gave on intersectionality. Many critics objected to her lewd behavior. I didn’t really care about Cyrus cavorting in a beige bikini and waving a foam finger. Much of her performance felt like a rite of passage. Spears stripped down to a rhinestone-studded beige bodysuit in 2000. At least there was something agentic and humorous about Cyrus’ display, like she was making fun of sexy.
What made my stomach turn was Cyrus’ racial appropriation. This was why I asked students what it meant for her to take up visual signifiers of ratchet culture as a white woman and how it means differently when black female pop stars like Beyoncé take them up. How would we feel if Rihanna performed this song, since writer-producer Mike WiLL Made It originally pitched it to her? What surprised me was that this wasn’t the issue about Cyrus’ performance for many people. What did it mean for Cyrus to hire the LA Bakers as her back-up dancers for the video and VMA performance for “We Can’t Stop”? What did Amazon Ashley’s presence—her height, her size—mean? What did it mean for Cyrus to slap her ass? What do we do with their labor? What does their participation mean to them? What does it mean to Cyrus?
Madonna’s performance of “Like a Virgin” at the 1984 VMAs may have created the template for young female pop stars with designs on integrating sexual maturity into their brand. But Cyrus’ performance of “We Can’t Stop” brought to mind Madonna’s performance of “Vogue” at the 1990 ceremony, which heavily referenced Marie Antoinette. I thought about the presence of black and Latin bodies as servants and members of the court. On the one hand, it was interesting to see these subjects get written into such Eurocentric histories. On the other hand, their presence doesn’t challenge Madonna’s ability to rule from the center. I thought about the dancers. What did their work mean for Madonna? What did it mean to them? For example, in one interview, back-up dancer Niki Harris recalled hearing the concept for the performance. She reminded Madonna that white powder didn’t look good on black skin.
What bothers me about Cyrus is that she’s consistently defended, excused, or explained away her VMA performance. Sometimes it seems like she’s trolling us. At least Cyrus hasn’t covered Lou Reed’s “I Wanna Be Black.” Perhaps taking time out of an interview to entertain the other side of the debate would keep her from staying on message, but I worry that Cyrus’ dismissal of such critique suggests that pop means never having to say you’re sorry. But some great music came out of apologies and reappraisals. In the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing women like Apple, Beyoncé, Janelle Monaé, Cat Power, Erykah Badu, and Neko Case challenge maturity. Perhaps Cyrus will change her tune as she gets older and more ambivalent.
If I’ve learned anything from teaching undergraduates in a survey on contemporary media this semester, it’s that many of them like Lorde. A handful of students claimed “Royals” as their song of the summer during first-week introductions. Two weeks later, I had students select four movies, TV shows, songs, and video games for a scavenger hunt where they had to determine what media conglomerates “owned” the media properties in question. One student threw “Royals” on the board, to the enthusiasm of several classmates. Then, over the last two weeks, we’ve returned to the U.S. and international versions of the “Royals” music video to talk about form and ideology, respectively. They’ve had a lot to say about each version, and were particularly interested in talking about her work and image. For a semester that began amid the backlash of Miley Cyrus’s divisive VMA performance (more on that later; I have thoughts), the New Zealand prodigy is as much a recurring presence in class discussion as pop’s reigning wrecking ball.
I’ve guided students through analyses of both versions of the video eight times in the past two weeks. So “Royals” and I are familiar with one other. I’m especially fascinated by how Lorde (with director Joel Kefali) chooses to present herself in the medium. Simply put, she has a cavalier attitude toward lip syncing. She often fixes her gaze on the camera with her mouth closed as the track plays around her. She takes this to its logical extreme in the video to her follow-up single, “Tennis Court,” by only mouthing the word “yeah.”
What does this mean, exactly? A student pointed out that Lorde’s “non”-presentation shifted her expectations for how female pop stars represent themselves in music videos. It’s more commonplace for pop stars to objectify themselves for the purposes of promotion. In addition, the burden of self-objectification is uniquely bestowed upon women. The expectation of how women represent themselves in music video tends to rely upon sexualization. We expect a red-lipped Miley to lick a mallet. We anticipate Rihanna to sit on a throne in a diamond bra and barely-there denim hot pants. I don’t believe that those expectations result in straightforward analyses that “prove” that female pop stars are complicit in male-driven fantasies of women’s objectification. As Susan Elizabeth Shepard, Ayesha A. Siddiqi, and Sarah Nicole Prickett argue, the hypnotic video for “Pour It Up” has more to do with female narcissism, athleticism, and solidarity than such blunt-instrument interpretations usually allow. It also complicates cultural readings of black female bodies as decorous, intrinsically sexual accessories that recirculated—powerfully, by scholars like Tressie McMillan Cottom—as a result of Cyrus’ VMA performance.
Of course, Lorde isn’t the only female pop star to stare at the camera. It’s traditionally used as a way to mark a singer’s vulnerability. In a tight close-up, we have access to her face as she fights back tears during emotional moments in her song. Sinead O’Connor famously shed a tear over the line “All the flowers that you planted, mama—in the back yard—all died when you went away” in “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Miley referenced O’Connor’s performance in “Wrecking Ball,” reportedly crying over the death of her dog and not the end of her relationship to Liam Hemsworth. Unfortunately, this homage resulted in an unfortunate exchange between the two singers that some note failed to engage meaningfully with intersectional concerns of pop music and appropriation.
Thus, it should be noted that Janelle Monáe also took up the indelible image of O’Connor’s tear-streaked face in the affecting video for “Cold War” a few years back. At certain points, Monáe is so caught up in the performance that she falls out of sync. When she gets to the line, “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me and it hurts my heart”, she lets the tears fall as the track breezes past her.
But Lorde doesn’t choose not to lip sync because she’s crying. In fact, her face deliberately obscures access to such emotions. My take on Lorde’s decision not to lip sync is that, in doing so, she is drawing attention to the artifice of music video as a popular form that often falls on women to perform. But, there’s something deeply calculated about Lorde’s self-presentation that is every bit as constructed as Miley’s tongue or Rihanna’s strip tease (or, for that matter, Katy Perry’s loin cloth in “Roar” and Britney Spears’ bottle of Fantasy perfume in “Work Bitch”).
One clear difference between the international and U.S. versions of the “Royals” video is Lorde’s presence. Lorde appears only a few times in the international version of the video—staring silently at the camera at the beginning and end of the video, and lip syncing part of the song’s bridge. In the U.S. version, there are more clips of her interspersed throughout. This is an important distinction to make. In New Zealand, she is more of a known figure. By now, it’s part of her lore that she was scouted by label representatives at junior high talent shows and signed a recording contract at 12. Until recently, she has also been rather protective of her image, only allowing a few pictures of herself to circulate. Lorde’s image is control. The tight, symmetrical framing and minimalist aesthetic of her videos illustrate this. Her lyrics—terse yet florid declarative statements about ambition, fame, and “authenticity”—reflect this too. Even her decision to record under the stage name Lorde—and not her given name, Ella Yelich-O’Connor—is one of control over people’s access to the “real” her. However, this reign on her image makes the integration of more footage of her in the U.S. version serve as evidence that Lorde is negotiating control over her image while attempting to enter the U.S. market on its terms.
But we must temper such readings about Lorde’s control over her image with her age and white female privilege. This is why I’m hesitant to sing her praises just yet. I don’t want to place undue emphasis on her age in a media culture that simultaneously gives precocious young white women such a wide margin of error and often exhausts their resources so quickly, an ideology of female success reinforced by the gendering of objectifying terms like “shelf life.” I want all female vocalists to have the room to stumble, record, and perform while accumulating life experience and gray hair. And obviously, whiteness has different cultural connotations in an international context. In New Zealand, whiteness must be interpreted alongside histories of colonialism. However, songs like “Royals” and “Tennis Court” directly confront issues like materialism, consumerism, and class privilege. With “Royals,” such commentary is inflected with—if not outright racism, as Verónica Bayetti Flores claims—a racialist edge that takes up hip-hop’s signifiers—gold teeth, Cristal, Cadillacs, bling, Queen Bs—in ways that are simultaneously “for everyone” in a post-racial context and embedded in distinctly black forms of cultural production.
As a white woman, Lorde gets to eschew these riches and strive for them at the same time. These are privileges that most teenage girls are not offered. Try as I might, I cannot imagine the mainstream incorporation of a video with a Māori sixteen-year-old girl stoically peering at a camera and choosing not to lip sync lyrics to her own song alongside images of her teenage male counterparts boxing each other. Thus, by not lip syncing, Lorde makes a principled decision to keep her mouth shut when so few young women are given the opportunity to open theirs at all. This is the privilege of cutting your teeth on wedding rings in defiance while reaching for the brass ring of mainstream success. My hope is that Lorde understands the weight of this and stares it straight in the face.
As summer winds down, I thought I’d throw up a few videos by artists I can always rely on. Two of them–Björk and St. Vincent–have albums coming out next month. Jill Scott is the third artist featured here, and The Light of the Sun has been in personal rotation this summer. I’d include Rihanna’s Avril-sampling “Cheers (Drink to That),” but Rihanna slants her eyes at the 3:11 mark, bringing to mind Miley’s racial insensitivity incident, so I can’t endorse it without a lot more context.
Directed by Terri Timely
“Hear My Call”
The Light of the Sun
Co-directed by Jill Scott
Directed by Michel Gondry
Last Saturday, I checked one major item off a list of things I need to complete within the next month. This coincided with a dear friend’s birthday eve. When the damning reviews of Sex and the City 2 rolled in earlier this summer, we said we’d watch it together when it came out on DVD so we could get drunk and yell at the screen in private. Drink and yell we did, because sweet Southern breakfast the sequel is terrible.
I was a fan of the show. While certainly critical of its racial myopia and its reliance on the credit card to buy female empowerment, I still pull out the DVDs I inherited from a former roommate when I want some questionable sartorial choices and effervescent dialogue. I’m interested in how the show spun off into a successful film franchise, as well as the show’s massive global success, particularly in countries like Korea. I saw the first movie in the theaters with two girlfriends, finding it mildly entertaining until I was five minutes from my house on the ride home and felt like I was cheated. News of a sequel seemed completely unnecessary, even if I think the argument about the double standard between unsympathetic film representations of male and female members of Generation X has traction.
So, how is the sequel so off base? Apart from the racism you already know about that I’ll elaborate upon below, it suffers from a terrible script. Writer-director-executive producer Michael Patrick King knows how to capitalize on the show’s glamor but penning dialogue was never his strongest suit. The sub-vaudevillian puns always get in the way. Part of what made Sex and the City resonant with its core audience was that its predominantly female writing incorporated personal experiences and insights into Carrie and the gang’s storylines and conversations. They effused the girls’ snappy banter with buoyancy. Their scenes together now are down-right airless, their chemistry residing somewhere between non-existent and downright acrimonious. My take is that the other three girls simply cannot stand Carrie any longer. Our whimsical protagonist’s self-involvement and flair for dramatic projection grated on me many times during the series. I always cite the scene in the first episode of the sixth season where Miranda intimates to Carrie that she is still in love with Steve, the father of her son, and her “friend” runs away mid-conversation because a guy she likes may see her in a fashionista’s idea of schlubby attire, but I could recall further back. A weak spot of the series toward the end of its run was that Carrie was intended to be represented as blameless and even somehow noble when she often acted reprehensibly. Now she’s married to that rich bastard I never liked and is upset that he wants to stay in their magnificently appointed apartment and eat expensive takeout and curl up on the couch. Things come to ahead when he installs a flat-screen television inches away from their bed. I would’ve tickled him with glee. She apparently is so disgusted by the gesture that she has to run to Abu Dhabi.
The other girls have problems people just don’t have. Samantha is getting older and thus developing a dependence on hormone supplements. Miranda has a mean boss (played with Texan swagger by comedian Ron White) and incurs guilt from her thankless husband and son, who take for granted that her 60-hour work weeks keep the lights on. So she quits her job and gets A NEW JOB A BETTER JOB by the end of the movie. Charlotte’s problems are the most poignant. She’s clearly suffering from the end of postpartum depression but will admit it to no one. This, like Carrie’s and Big’s decision not to have children, could have created an interesting character arc. She gets one half-decent scene with Miranda where they vent about motherhood, but it is marred by clueless nattering about how they don’t know how mothers without outside help manage. But most of the script sets up really stupid scenarios, like when her daughter ruins a vintage Valentino skirt that her mother is wearing for some reason while icing cupcakes in a crowded kitchen. Oh, and I’m pretty sure King wrote the buxom nanny as Irish in the script so Samantha could land the “Erin Go Braless” joke. Blarney.
Following an introduction that lets us know how the girls met in a very gentrified version of 1980s New York, the movie begins at the saddest gay wedding I’ve ever seen. Carrie and Charlotte’s
accessories gay best friends Stanford and Anthony hated each other during the show. But now they’re supposedly the only two middle-aged queens left on the island and Stanford has to sacrifice Anthony’s infidelity to get his white wedding. Liza Minnelli officiates for some reason, and then launches into a creaky rendition of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” Frankly, this scene was why I wanted to see the movie. I love Ms. Minnelli but the whole production strives so hard to seem young and contemporary that it feels manic and desperate. This is beneath the talent who immortalized Sally Bowles and Lucille Austero. Let’s watch her get results with the Pet Shop Boys and say no more.
The movie, as you all know by now, becomes unforgivable in Abu Dhabi. At a movie premiere, publicist Samantha is given the opportunity to potentially take on a Middle Eastern hotelier as a client. He invites her and a few guests to stay in one of his luxurious estates. Miranda attempts to be sensitive to the particularities of Muslim culture and instruct the girls on how to behave. Carrie is forgiven for condescending toward her servant and gawking at Muslim women eating French fries in a food court. But King somehow forgets in his effort to throw Samantha (and Parker’s off-screen nemesis Kim Catrall) under the bus by forgetting that she’s a successful public relations professional and instead represents her as a horny, ugly American. She is an insensitive wreck after customs confiscates her anti-aging supplements. And when she finally finds a (white) business magnate to get her motor running, she has reckless disregard for social decorum.
Again, the franchise has always had a shaky grasp on addressing racial issues. In the first movie, Carrie takes on an assistant named Louise (Jennifer Hudson), which was clearly meant to quell charges against the show for only representing white ladies in a notable diverse metropolitan area. I’m pretty sure that Louise from St. Louis who loves Louis Vuitton (nuanced characterization!) is a figment of Carrie’s imagination, like the martian who hovers by Fred Flintstone’s ear. We only see Louise in relation to Carrie and she never has a scene with any of the other girls. I recently had a conversation with my friend Curran where we discussed how it was weird that the movies’ soundtracks primarily consist of female R&B singers of color like Hudson, Alicia Keys, and Leona Lewis, but none of this is reflected in the show’s casting choices. Again, women of color provide the girls with merely peripheral intrigue.
Catrall endured similar expenses against her dignity during later seasons and the first film. But this movie is nothing but a two-and-a-half-hour pie job. It’s an exercise in vilifying Samantha for being insecure about aging, suspecting that Charlotte’s husband might be cheating on her, and wearing a dress better than Miley Cyrus did on a red carpet event. Thus why I reference a Yoko Ono song in the post’s title. While Samantha isn’t put a brave face to eclipse her true feelings about her lover’s affair, like Ono is in the song, Kim Cattrall is putting a brave face as the franchise’s key players destroy her character’s memory.
I find it especially sad that the battle is waged against someone who I once considered my favorite character. While I identify most closely with type-A alpha nerd Miranda, I always understood why she was friends with Samantha. I believe Miranda could relate to Samantha’s professional drive and negotiating a bullish business world as a successful women. Thus I believe Samantha would have her dossier prepared and would have been on her best behavior in Abu Dhabi, if only for the sake of business. And while Parker gets top billing and producer credit, Cattrall was always a comedienne brave enough to mine sexuality of its humor, abject terror, and occasional splendor. Though it is lost in syndication, Cattrall gave City much of its sex. She is also the most loyal friend of the group, though I think both character and actress are proving themselves masochists by enduring their disdain. It’s time to get out from under the bus.
Recently, I rewatched Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” during a workday lull.
I remember when this song came out, which was her debut single as a solo artist, I was surprisingly into it. I’ve never been a huge fan of Stefani’s work. I liked that she took pride in her athletic body, though has kept her physique slim since she played Jean Harlow in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. Her music is fine and at times feminist-friendly (though she of course denies being one, even when she’s on the cover of BUST Magazine). She tends to whine about boys, though.
But hummina does she take a page from distant relative Madonna and graft racial signifiers on her somewhat de-ethnicized Italian American body. In her career, she has appropriated from South Asian and Latina cultures, and also juxtaposed her bleached blondeness against African American masculinity. I also believe that she’s directly responsible for the glamourous pan-ethnic white tomboy Black-Eyed Peas’ hook girl Fergie perpetuates. Miley Cyrus recently appropriated the chola during a performance on the Much Music Awards. With Love. Angel. Music. Baby., she brought the Harajuku Girls into her supposedly post-racial bricolage. I didn’t realize the Orientalism going on until I sang the single at a karaoke bar and discovered the seemingly celebratory line about these young Japanese women possessing amazing style. I didn’t see a problem with it until she assembled a quartet of wordless minions.
That said, I do find the music video interesting. I like how the clip seems to poke fun at the music industry’s willingness to shower its talent with millions of dollars in order to maximize their product’s market potential by showing Stefani go to a retreat to fight writer’s block that’s funded by unseen manager Jimmy (Iovine). I like how it also situates this culture in a specifically West Coast milieu, as Los Angeles has long profiteered off spiritualism from chi chi new age feelgooderies (for more on the subject of how this may dovetail into the emergence of priv-lit, I highly recommend reading Joshunda Sanders and Diana Barnes-Brown’s Bitch article on the subject).
But I wonder what it means that Stefani casts herself as the heroine of Alice In Wonderland in her unconscious in the Francis Lawrence-directed clip. Is the music industry a hallucinatory simply a place that preys upon and infantilizes female artists? I also wonder how the music video relates to Tim Burton’s recent attempt to adapt the story. Assuredly, the clip does more interesting and potentially progressive things with the source material than the misogynistic music video for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” But I wonder if there’s more going on through the looking glass.