Last weekend, I went home to visit my parents. Little did I know I’d encounter multiple texts that would foreground Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” an amazing song I have yet to hear incorporated properly into a movie.
The first text was Jaap Kooijman’s “Triumphant Black Pop Divas on the Wide Screen: Lady Sings the Blues and Tina: What’s Love Got to Do With It“. This is an essay on black pop stars and music biopics that was printed in Popular Music and Film and was recommended to me by Mabel, an acquaintance of mine through the UT RTF Department. Kooijman’s piece is especially interesting to me in terms of biopics prey upon spectators’ pre-existent fandom and must adhere to traditional narrative conventions of individual redemption and triumph regardless of actual experience.
With both Lady Sings the Blues and What’s Love Got To Do With It?, these movies also obscured certain key elements in order to proclaim (and exploit) the black female pop star’s marketability. In Lady, Holiday’s personal tragedy is neatly bypassed to ensure star Diana Ross’s commercial viability as an actress, singer, and product. With Love, actress Angela Bassett’s performance as Tina Turner is overshadowed by the singer’s presence on the soundtrack and in the movie’s final image.
Kooijman also touches on the scene in Lady where Holiday witnesses black Southerners mourning a lynching victim while on tour and is “inspired” by what she sees (note: “Strange Fruit” was actually written by Abel Meeropol). As a fan of Holiday’s but not of Sidney J. Furie’s 1972 feature, I side with James Baldwin on this scene, who Kooijman sites to bolster his claim that the scene treats racism as an isolated occurence in Holiday’s life. Baldwin believed the scene to be remote and rife with pious horror and gratified reassurance.
Agreed. It was actually at about this point that I turned off Lady for similar reasons when I saw it. The factual inaccuracy, romantic distance from the subject, and emphasis on Ross’s adequate performance annoyed me enough preceding this icky moment.
Then once I settled in at my parents’ house, what should come on cable but Adrian Lyne’s 1986 feature 9 1/2 Weeks? I’ve been thinking about this misogynist’s wet dream for a while now and thought to revisit it. I saw it once with my mom (!) some time during college. Even prior to a background in feminist film theory or quality time with Susan Faludi’s Backlash, I knew this movie was bad for womankind. I was interested in the soundtrack, which primarily consistents of cold Europop and boasts John Taylor’s Bowie-damaged “I Do What I Do” as its theme.
For those not immediately familiar, the quintessentially 80s “erotic thriller” was based on Elizabeth McNeill’s novel of same name and documents the brief but torrid affair between SoHo gallery employee Elizabeth McGraw (Kim Basinger) and Wall Street hotshot John Grey (Mickey Rourke, in a performance that blew away Robert Downey Jr. but set me up to hate Diner and The Wrestler, even if I think his soulful eyes and quiet voice are disturbingly effective here), who prods her into increasingly debasing activities until she says uncle. It actually didn’t do well at the box office but found its home in late-night cable programming, where it apparently still resides.
This movie made many feminists angry. It also prompted Roger Ebert to side with it as a parable of sexual responsibility, which makes this feminist angrier. Because much of how I receive 9 1/2 Weeks is in recognition that Lyne manipulated Basinger in cruel ways on set and at one point allowed Rourke to hit her in order to get the performance he wanted. So I read this as insulting to the actress’s ability and a horrifying parallel to what we see transpire on screen.
I bring up this movie because Grey uses “Strange Fruit” to set his plans for seduction in motion. He plays the song for her in an early attempt to set the mood. It fails, though she continues to come back until she draws the line at being pushed into a threesome with Grey and a hooker (I shudder as I type). To think about these two glamorous white people beginning to embark on sexual warfare in vast spaces appointed by luxurious minimalism as this song plays on a stereo system probably bought from some fancy electronics store makes my blood curdle. Clearly Grey is missing the point with this song. But unless they’re honoring the source material, Lyne and his music department were commiting a far more grevious error in its inclusion.
Recently Logan Hill contributed a piece for Vulture on the invigoration of music video production on the Internet following a dry spell for the medium on television. Of course, folks have noted this as YouTube, Vimeo, Vevo, and a host of other clip-sharing sites became ubiquitous alongside MTV’s continued programming choices to inundate their audience with reality shows. The network recently took “Music Television” out of its logo. For a moment, it seemed like DVD collections like Palm Pictures’ Directors Label series would step in and make music videos more available to the public, but clearly the Internet has won, even invigorating the careers of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry.
While I don’t see this move as little more than a shift indicative of how we consume media, I would also like to point out that many of these headline-grabbing Internet sensation music videos are notable for another reason. The scandal and celebrity associated with these big-budget clips center on female pop stars. In the past year, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Shakira, Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu, and M.I.A. have made garnered attention and controversy with clips inundated with sexual and/or violent imagery that might not fly on post-network television but keep the blogoshere typing, Tweeting, and uploading. Alongside those artists, fringe acts like Peaches, Yo! Majesty, and Gossip — all peopled by queer musicians — have garnered some recognition for their work.
On the surface, the presence female pop stars have in reviving the music video format also recalls MTV’s nascence. Many note that the first clip the network aired was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” But Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” followed it, along with a whole host of female pop stars who battled rock acts and hair metal bands for programming supremacy. The Go-Go’s, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Eurythmics’ lead singer Annie Lennox all catapulted to stardom during the network’s infancy, as art rock acts like Kate Bush also received some stateside recognition.
While the current stable of video stars seem to subvert conventional femininity by playing with camp and excess, I’m actually inclined to read many of these artists as ultimately normative. Many of the video narratives, regardless of costuming or cultural references, tend to rehash contrived narratives about young women getting rowdy in the club and letting her (hetero)sexual inhibitions run wild. I believe Badu’s “Window Seat” and M.I.A.’s “Born Free” challenge these offerings however, by either making female nudity at once mundane and endangered or by dispensing of the female pop star altogether to focus on government-sanctioned ultraviolence. Monáe’s approach might be the most refreshing as she recontextualizes rock and R&B’s cultural origins within a female body covered up in menswear that’s ready to teach you some new dance steps.
In addition, many of these musical artists are working with established male video directors. Gaga revived the career of Jonas Åkerlund, who originally made a name for himself working with Madonna. While it’s easy to read these directors as auteurs, I’m inclined to point out that some of them have established collaborative relationships with these women across several projects. This also recalls how Gondry came into the cultural lexicon. While we may now think of him as the visionary behind White Stripes videos and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, an Icelandic pop star named Björk selected him to direct his first English-language music video after years working in France. The clip was for “Human Behaviour,” which launched both of their careers in the states.
I’d like to bring up in the current emergence of female pop stars on the Internet is that almost all of them are solo artists taking sole focus on big-budget music videos. While I don’t want to suggest that these women are not musicians, or overlook the fact that Beyoncé tours with an all-female backing band, I find it disheartening that we aren’t seeing as many images of women and girls creating video images as collaborators, whether between female artists and directors, as members of a band, or female artists who collaborate with one another. While Lady Gaga and Beyoncé have been known to work together, as have M.I.A. and Santigold, it would be nice to see more music videos with a group of women or girls as the focus.
Likewise, I also find it frustrating that so many of these big productions have to be so moneyed, most notably Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone.” Perhaps a new group of bands and musical artists in collaboration with one another will also make names for themselves as music videos continue to thrive on the Internet. Who says you need a big budget and an iconic pop star to make a clip for the ages?
The general consensus is that Prey for Rock & Roll is terrible. In fact, the trailer looked terrible.
But it’s about a LA-based band named Clamdandy (shudder) comprised of queer women supposedly past their prime. One of my favorite scenes in Whip It! is when Juliette Lewis’s character Iron Maven admits to Ellen Page’s Babe Ruthless that she didn’t find something she was really good at until after turning 30. I root for the underdog. You know this. Bonus points for a movie that features Lori Petty and Drea De Matteo, the latter of whom broke my heart as Adriana La Cerva on The Sopranos and looks like she was born to play in a rock band.
That said, wow what a pile of garbage Alex Steyermark’s directorial debut is. He’s since retreated back to his roots as a music supervisor and I think that’s for the best. I had no idea that a movie which opens on close-up fragments of Gina Gershon’s bare midriff, leather adorned chest, and open pout had nowhere to go but down.
But the movie has bigger obstacles than poor technical execution. It’s hard to overcome a script as hackneyed as the one first-time screenwriters Cheri Lovedog and Robin Whitehouse penned. Let’s count the regressions and clichés. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t worry about the spoilers. You’ll see them coming.
1. Gershon’s Jacki is a bisexual tattoo artist who discovered the power of rock through Tina Turner and Exene Cervenka. She starts the movie with Jessica (played by Shakara Ledard), an African American woman who she casts aside in the name of rock. By the end of the movie, she’s with a white bruiser convict with a neck tattoo who goes by the name of Animal (played by Marc Blucas, who most Buffy fans will remember as Riley Finn). But don’t worry. He murdered his pedophile stepfather to save his sister, Sally.
2. Drummer Sally (played by Shelly Cole, who I’m currently watching play Madeline on another WB/CW teen soap called Gilmore Girls) is not only a survivor of sexual abuse. She also gets raped by Nick (played by Ivan Martin), a junkie with a sick rape fetish who dates bassist Tracy (De Matteo).
3. Tracy’s a junkie too. That damn trust fund is an albatross. But don’t worry — she gets clean after Jacki reveals to Sally that she has a similar family history and the band write a song called “Every Six Minutes” about sexual assault. I should be more excited about a song that confronts and indicts rape, but Lovedog isn’t a good songwriter either. For a good example of an anti-rape song, might I point you toward X’s “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene”?
Or, since punk boys often misunderstood its message, let’s listen to The Raveonettes’ “Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed).”
4. Sally is a lesbian and is dating guitarist Tracy (Petty). In addition to being punished by having to listen to the half-hearted efforts of lazy guitar students as an instructor, Tracy gets killed by an oncoming car when some no-goodniks of color steal her guitar.
But fear not. The band soldiers on. And yet, I have no real reason to care.
Today’s entry focuses on author Maria Raha’s book Cinderella’s Big Score which focuses on female contributions to American and British punk, alternative, and independent music from the mid-1970s to, at its 2005 release, the present. It is to be the first title read by the rock n’ roll book club some Girls Rock Camp Austin peeps have put together. As we haven’t yet met to discuss the book, I’m using my blog to formulate my thoughts on it.
I picked up Raha’s book back in early 2006 (local business plug: I bought it at MonkeyWrench Books). I read it in between getting my wisdom teeth pulled and taking time off work to engage in a battle with my sinuses. In short, I devoured it while bed-ridden and pissy. This didn’t bode well for the reading process, as I did not like the book. But I wanted to give it another chance, so this was an opportunity to re-read it.
At the time, my problems were two-fold.
1. The scope is too broad. 30-plus years of rock history, broken down into tiny chapters about 38 different female artists? Yikes! It felt like I was reading overviews with little more insight than All Music Guide entries. Either narrow it down or write a bigger book! And I already knew most of these artists before I picked up the book, so I didn’t feel like I was getting any new information.
2. Raha is very much of the “indie rock, good; pop, bad” persuasion and does little to challenge her biases or problematize the book’s subjects. As many of the rock artists she holds in high esteem are white women and many of the pop artists she dislikes are women of color, this creates an unintentional yet unfortunate gendered racial tension.
I think about this a lot. When I co-teach music history workshops with Kristen at Act Your Age, we notice that the reception of certain musical subgenres is divided along racial lines. Participants of color tend to get excited about hip hop, R&B, and pop and check out during discussions of punk and riot grrrl. It might be that riot grrrl means a great deal to white girls and white women, but doesn’t speak to many girls and women of color.
(Note: This isn’t to say girls and women of color can’t relate to or be inspired by riot grrrl; I just wonder how many do.)
In addition to the dicey racial implications of the “indie rock, good; pop, bad” binary, I found — and still find — Raha’s reading of pop music to be shallow and essentializing. While I too find The Spice Girls’ (soda) watered-down brand of girl power feminism troubling, along with the advent of millennial teen-pop jailbait like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, I think there’s much more going on here than Raha does. For one, there’s no discussion of fans’ complex relationships with their teen idols (for a closer reading on the subject, I’d recommend scholar Dafna Lemish’s article “Spice Girls’ talk: A case study in the development of gendered identity”). There’s also scant consideration of how image-making is a complex process for female stars — save for Madonna, a person Raha seems to approve of save for her headline grabbing VMA kiss with Spears — and how this is true for both underground and mainstream female artists.
As people forget that Aguilera was in on “the kiss” or that her vocals were live, Raha puts little value in mainstream vocalists’ singing ability, which can involve considerable musical technique and craft. This also absents girl groups like En Vogue and Destiny’s Child or solo artists like Beyoncé from discussion. I also find it insulting that she assumes all of these women are pop dollies Svengalied by men.
This doesn’t even get into how hip hop, both mainstream and independent, is all but ignored in this book.
Oh, and please don’t hate on Janet Jackson.
It may be easy to configure her as a dancer who let Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis create her career for her, or crack wise about plastic surgery, weight fluctuations, and wardrobe malfunctions. But let’s not forget that her songs tackle complex issues like racial injustice, AIDS, homophobia, domestic violence, masturbation, sexual agency, and female autonomy. She’s the woman behind “The Pleasure Principle,” “Nasty,” “Control,” “Together Again,” “What About?,” “Free Zone,” “What Have You Done For Me Lately?,” “Rhythm Nation,” and the black feminist anthem “New Agenda.” She may be the artist responsible for many fans’ entrance into feminism.
These feelings still spike up, though I liked this book more the second time. I took for granted that Raha contextualizes each section of her book with an overview of what was going on in popular music at the time. I do bristle at her open, unchecked animosity for pop’s artificiality (as if indie rock is an exemplar of authenticity; it’s a myth that still gets perpetuated and results in many backlashes against bands like Vampire Weekend, a band I’d be happy to argue on behalf of elsewhere). But I also appreciate how Raha takes hardcore, grunge, nu metal, and the male output of much punk and indie rock to task for practicing misogyny and abiding by patriarchy. And I like that she does champion some female pop stars, particularly Cyndi Lauper and Tina Turner. I also like her efforts to discuss female musicians like Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon in mixed-gender bands, and bring up issues women had working with one another.
Raha also discusses bands and artists I didn’t know much about. Thanks for shining a light on Lunachicks, Crass’ Joy De Vivre and Eve Libertine, Avengers’ Penelope Houston, Fastbacks’ Lulu Gargiulo and Kim Warnick. Thanks for bringing Germs’ manager Nicole Panter, Tsunami’s Jenny Toomey and queercore legends Tribe 8 and Team Dretsch into the discussion, as they often get overlooked.
There are of course some artists I wish were discussed, but know Raha had limited space to cover the artists she did, which was already a considerable aggregate. Because this is my blog, I’ll list some ladies, most of whom I’ve discussed here: Delta 5, Au Pairs, Bush Tetras, Y Pants, Pylon, Cibo Matto, Jean Grae, Joanna Newsom, Ponytail, Explode Into Colors, M.I.A., Karen O, Santigold, Yo Majesty, St. Vincent, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Bat for Lashes, Fever Ray, Finally Punk, and Follow That Bird. As some of the artists she discusses are or were on major labels, I will also include Kate Bush, Björk, Liz Phair, Tori Amos, and Erykah Badu.
As Raha’s book came out just as indie and mainstream were melding in ways similar yet far more pervasive than the alternative rock boom of a pre-bust American music industry, I wonder what she makes of Solange covering Dirty Projectors or joining Of Montreal on stage. What does she make of M.I.A. or Santigold, two indie artists who court mainstream success? She wrote her book just as download culture forever altered listeners’ exposure to music and their resulting consumer habits.
When I first read this book, I questioned the usefulness of it. A noble effort, to be sure. But how valuable is an overview on obscure or underground female artists when the majority of its potential readers can probably follow blogs and download tracks? While I know the book is geared toward younger women — and I certainly would have valued the book at this age — most of the girls I’ve met or worked with at Girls Rock Camp Austin already knew just about everyone mentioned here.
That said, I do think the book is a good primer for young girls and women just starting to navigate the indie rock’s craggy terrain. But if you’re gifting it, make sure to include a mix CD and a set of discussion questions. Maybe it’ll start a book club.
I don’t know if any of you have read Christian John Wikane’s PopMatters piece on Tina Turner and the 25th anniversary of Private Dancer, but it’s great. Upon reflection of this artist and album, I naturally thought of the music video for “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” To borrow from Lisa A. Lewis, it’s a definitive female address clip, particularly for Turner’s interaction with the street, a space which Lewis uses Angela McRobbie to define as an access sign for women and girls. It also reminds people of how kick-ass Ms. Turner was and continues to be.
Given that many of us have been attending holiday parties recently, I thought I’d offer up another traditionally male-gendered cultural space: the bar. What happens when female artists encounter it?
“Got Til It’s Gone”
The Velvet Rope
Directed by Mark Romanek
Standing in the Way of Control
Directed by Whitey McConnaughy
“Lived In Bars”
Directed by Robert Gordon