Back in 2009, Kristen at Act Your Age and I were talking about NPR’s coverage of that spring’s SXSW, which dovetailed into a discussion about Bob Boilen’s stilted interaction with Thao Nguyen. As the conversation continued, we began to air our shared disdain for him, which was engendered by his accompanying narration for song selections on All Songs Considered. These feelings were generated from his voice. We interpreted his voice and its tone as the epitome of rationally minded, sensitive white male condescension, particularly in his dealings with women and the output of female artists.
Having spent some more time with Boilen’s studied baritone, I’m not as prone to irascibility when I hear him speak. I still find his preferences to be predictable. However, it’s a criticism I’d wage on anyone affiliated with All Songs, as they tend to warm to the indie frippery of supposedly unadorned acts like Bon Iver, Mountain Man, the Swell Season, and Fleet Foxes. I appreciate that he can laugh at himself and take a joke when Robin Hilton and Carrie Brownstein mock his tastes. And I’ve found his guest dj sets with various musical artists to be very interesting.
But I do keep thinking about that word “studied,” which could be applied to any NPR correspondent. “Studied” is NPR’s M.O. It has long been the respite for liberals looking to escape AM radio’s conservative harangue. To these ears, NPR has as much to do with creating a through line between modern American intellectuals as rational, level-headed, and secular-minded people as the prevalence of deism did during the Age of Enlightenment. It also is particularly responsible for disseminating programming that appeals toward its white, upper-middle class, college-educated target audience. Patton Oswalt has ranted beautifully on the subject.
But the term “studied” is superficially applied here. Sure, when I think of NPR, I think of Saturday Night Live’s “Delicious Dish” segments, which centered around a fictional NPR program hosted by polite foodies Margaret-Jo McCullen (Ana Gasteyer) and Terri Rialto (Molly Shannon). Actually, one of my classmates in graduate school is currently an on-air personality for Austin’s NPR affiliate, and she got the job after imitating McCullen and Rialto.
Despite its uniform emphasis on elocution and non-regional dialect in the service of upholding radio’s tradition of providing what Michele Hilmes refers to in her seminal historiography Radio Voices: American Broadcasting 1922-1952 as “the national voice,” NPR correspondents do different from one another. I never confuse Nina Totenberg with Michelle Norris, nor do I have trouble singling out Ari Shapiro or Robert Seigel.
Furthermore, I’d hazard to guess that one of NPR’s breakout personality, Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, is exclusively defined by her chewy alto. Of course, Gross — along with This American Life’s Ira Glass — is also noted for her interviewing skills. Though I find her style to lean heavily on assumption and often attempt to box interviewees’ responses into preconceived trajectories, particularly evident in a 2009 interview with Drew Barrymore, I recognize its contributions.
But some have fetishized Gross’s voice as the thinking person’s sex object. I find this objectification insulting and troublesome. Perhaps it’s a variation on Tina Fey’s glasses. Maybe it presents a cultural assumption of the linkage between radio personality and phone sex operator, something I had to forcefully clarify for the perennial harassing male caller along with several female colleagues at my college radio station. That several contemporary American horror movies, including Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, The Fog, and Death Proof have positioned female deejays and radio personalities as victims and final girls further emphasizes our cultural discomfort with the disembodied female voice.
Last week on the Internet was defined, for many, as a time and place when folks debated whether or not Tina Fey is a good ambassador for feminism. I remain in the “she’s not perfect and at times super-problematic but I still value what she’s contributing and would rather advocate that more women bring feminism into comedy than have one successful white lady speak for the movement” camp. Here’s where I also insert a shout-out to Amy Poehler, who many also find problematic but has given us Smart Girls at the Party and The Mighty B!, in addition to killing it as proclaimed feminist Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation.
But I’d also like to acknowledge two pop stars who were motivated by feminism this past week. First up, Britney Spears had untouched photographs run alongside airbrushed images from a recent photo shoot. This news comes in the wake of French parliament member Valérie Boyer advocating that France require all advertising featuring people who have been digitally altered to be labeled. Boyer sees this as a way to combat poor female body image and unrealistic beauty standards. I believe this to be a responsible move on Spears’s part, especially to her younger fans. I also find it disconcerting that Spears’ muscle definition was taken away and her skin was lightened in the touch-ups.
In addition, I was heartened when Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style forwarded me a Jezebel post wherein Chilli from TLC identified with the f-word in a recent interview. While I understand that women of color have a thorny relationship with the term, I appreciate that the pop star took ownership of the word when many say “I’m not a feminist, but . . .” TLC were also one of the first pop acts I remember championing feminist issues like female autonomy, girl friendships, sexual health, and self-esteem in their music. “No Scrubs”? “Hat 2 Da Back”? They always sounded like feminists to me.
It’s now week two of the “Tuning In” series. Today, I focus on Liz Lemon’s ringtone. It’s “Fuck the Pain Away” by Peaches and therefore awesome.
The other night at a mutual friend’s party, Alex of Pink Army played me a portion of an episode of the animated children’s program Beverly Hills Teens. It aired on syndication and was brought to American kids by DiC, who anticipated the allure of rich teens romping through Beverly Hills before Aaron Spelling by a few years. Apparently it only had one season in the can (1987-1988) but the 65 episodes were re-ran for some time. Five of these episodes are available in full to curious or nostalgic types on YouTube. Other friends at the party remembered it as well, serving as either a lead-in to Jem or following Duck Tales in the after-school line-up. Somehow it was not on my radar. Maybe it was because I was watching Out of This World instead.
Make no mistake: this show is really dumb. Hokey writing, predictable storylines, broadly-written stock characters, and so forth. Basically, each episode focuses on teen queens Larke Tanner and Bianca Dupree. Anyone who’s watched Gossip Girl or read an Archie comic can guess how any plot goes down. Snobby blue-blood brunette Dupree covets something of golden girl Tanner’s (her popularity, modeling career, or boyfriend Troy) and doesn’t get it.
The considerable supporting cast also brings to mind the Archie universe or the coterie of folks inhabiting the CW’s version of the UES. All-American Troy is Archie Andrews or Nate Archibald. Preppy Pierce Thorndyke III (love that name) is Reggie Mantle III or Chuck Bass. Token African American character Shanelle Spencer suggests a shallow notion of inclusiveness in the same way that Chuck Clayton, Nancy Woods, or Blair’s attendants of color do. Rocker Gig and surfer Radley provide some slacker cool in the wake of Jughead Jones’s insouciance that predates the hipster appeal of Dan Humphrey. You get it.
However, I don’t want to write off this formulaic children’s cartoon without mentioning two characters that are completely in line with my research: rock chick Jett and nerdy informant Switchboard. Valley girl Jett may be Gig’s girlfriend, but they also play guitars in an outfit together. In fact, Jett sings the theme song. I suppose she could be somewhere between Jenny Humphrey and Josie McCoy, a satellite in the Archie universe.
The character I relate to is Switchboard, a friend of Jett’s. The name’s great, for a start. And while she’s cast as a geek (glasses on!), her idiosyncratic, period-indicative fashion sense would be prescient for how hipster girls dress now. As a journalist who always has the scoop on everything that’s going on in this stratified world, it only lends to her credibility. And while she’s got a strange obsession with the boring popular girls, something tells me that she’d later channel that energy into something more subversive once she went to RISD or Mills College. Basically, I think this girl later goes on to launch Artforum‘s Web site. There’s no clear precursor to her in the Archie universe, but I think she may very well be Gossip Girl, if it isn’t Chuck.
It’s now clear that geeks have a tremendous amount of cultural sway, as books like Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People and the rise of Tina Fey suggest. I’d argue there’s a whole lot of whiteness going on with this construction of geek, as the characterization of classed whiteness offered by Stuff White People Like and the fascination with blipsters may also evince. That said, as a white girl geek, I’m still interested in cataloging those moment when nerdy girls and women exist in media culture, no matter how small or problematic. In honor of friend and fellow geek Catherine, who came to feminism through riot grrrl as a teenage outcast and gave me Nugent’s book for my 25th birthday, I’ll leave you with Lisa Loeb’s “Stay.” Catherine texted me yesterday that she was watching this video and discovered that Ms. Loeb (an Ivy League-educated Texan) designed her own eyewear collection. Naturally.
Thought I’d throw this up here out of respect and empathy for the 9-to-5ers, especially to the ladies who, like me, fantasize about putting a mixed-gender vocal group together and dancing in the middle of the workplace. This one especially goes out to my rad ladyfriends Liz and Kristen, who got some awesome stuff published today. Liz published an article in St. Mary’s law journal about prostitution, sex trafficking laws, and gender discrimination. Kristen wrote a Dark Room guest post on Ryan Gosling’s band Dead Man’s Bones, just in time for Halloween. Proud of you two!
While I’m kinda done the American Office (specifically done with the lack of real consequences for Michael Scott’s ridiculous actions and sorta bored by Jim and Pam), I hope that Mindy Kaling gets creator-writer-star status like Tina Fey.
As an aside, sorry to be a hater, but I’m getting nervous about being done with 30 Rock. TGS, my expectations are sagging and you need to pick it up!
Anyway, I thought I’d post Subtle Sexuality’s way-awesome, super-Autotuned music video for “Male Prima Donna,” the new single from Dunder-Mifflin cube dwellers Kelly Kapoor, Erin Hannon, Ryan Howard, and the ‘Nard Dog, Andy Bernard. Clearly the girls are playing with Lady Gaga fashion, and their developing Valley Girl friendship has been a highlight for me, and I hope Kaling and actress Ellie Kemper are real-life friends. Also, Ed Helms and B.J. Novack rap, the latter while wearing a white top hat. The only thing I’d say is dump that jerk so we can all dance at the office party.