Few words in the English vernacular are as slippery and imprecise as “cool.” I don’t know what it means. If someone were to apply the word to me, I’d be tempted to respond with, “But I’m so sweaty.”
“Cool” has been applied to me. Usually it has some connection to my music fandom, though perhaps my stern resting face and propensity for color blocking contribute to the association. I think it’s been used as a compliment. Sometimes, it feels like a pejorative or a judgment, particularly when the usage seems like a synonym for “hipster.” There’s truth in it. I would paraphrase Panda Bear’s “Comfy in Nautica” in order to hazard a definition for coolness that honors the bravery of kindness. In the past, I’ve revealed some of my pretensions by claiming that I was the kind of teenager who didn’t “understand” the electric guitar and preferred atonal choral music. Yet for me, there’s distance with that vexing descriptor.
First, I have to consider how music shaped my adolescence. Of course, to do so requires an acknowledgment of my privileged access to resources like media technologies, musical artifacts, and domestic privacy. I got a clock radio for Christmas when I was ten. At around this time, I also received a portable tape player and later a Discman. These devices offered entry into a larger world. It provided me with the pleasures of then-unknown sounds, like that day in sixth grade when I stayed home sick and played a cassette of Duran Duran’s Rio on a loop. They also promised a respite from silence. A bit later, I would inherit my parents’ sound system, which allowed me to record radio programs and play CDs. At ten, I also began reading Rolling Stone, a magazine which I subscribed to throughout high school.
Early adolescence was a formative period for me. As a chubby and socially withdrawn pre-teen, I had trouble making friends and feeling comfortable with myself. Music made me feel included during a period of time when I felt most left out. Thus I didn’t recognize my listening practices and identification reflected in the opaque, uneven codes of exclusion that make coolness hegemonic. I didn’t listen to music to amass cultural capital. I didn’t even hear that term until I started graduate school. I taped stuff off the radio, read music criticism, and slept with Depeche Mode albums tucked under my pillow to feel less alone in my bedroom.
A lot of people might relate to that sentiment. Some of those folks are my friends and a few of them circulated Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “uncool” scene from Almost Famous following the news of his sudden passing. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find footage of Hoffman’s maverick deejay breaching the water in Pirate Radio. I’ve yet to revisit many of his films because Scotty J, Phil Parma, Jon Savage, Caden Cotard, and Lancaster Dodd remain too beautiful to bear. I’m scared of meeting the guy he played in Happiness. So I settled on a loop of scenes from The Talented Mr. Ripley, Punch-Drunk Love, The Big Lebowski, Along Came Polly, and Patch Adams (the first thing I saw him in; I side with Mitch). I finally saw Hard Eight, a debut feature that suggests enough of Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision underneath all of the Scorsese references, just to watch Hoffman taunt the film’s protagonist in one scene. I realized that a whole range of male friends absorbed something in his nihilistic cool—his lank hair, his way with a cigarette, his sneer. It’s time to revisit Doubt and Capote or, failing that, Twister.
Based on my friends’ social media activity, eulogizing Hoffman happened conterminously with taking Buzzfeed quizzes. Many of my friends got Kim Deal on Matthew Perpetua’s ’90s alt-rock grrrl quiz. A few of them were Courtney Love, Liz Phair, Björk, or Shirley Manson. I was PJ Harvey and my partner got Kim Gordon. I found this particular permutation of nostalgic resurgence interesting, largely because a number of those musicians—along with Cibo Matto, Luscious Jackson, L7, and the women in Lush, as well as R&B and hip-hop artists like TLC, Aaliyah, and Missy Elliott—shaped my perception of coolness.
As a young woman, I was taken by the authority of their musicianship. The depths of Harvey’s grief on “Teclo” were so intense that I hid To Bring You My Love under my bed. I studied the Deal sisters’ musical twin-speak. I delighted in Elliott’s ability to build innovative production and throw raunchily quotable rhymes over the top of her creations. I was also taken with image. I liked being unable to predict Jennifer Finch’s hair color. I saw Cibo Matto in a segment for House of Style where they visited their favorite New York restaurants and wanted to get lost in their world, an impulse I indulged in by endlessly studying the sleeve photography for Viva! La Woman! I put on a pair of blue silk PJs and danced in my room whenever “Creep” came on the radio.
Discourses of coolness are embedded in my identity as a music fan of certain female artists, many of whom can claim some sort of subcultural status. But some colleagues and faculty in my graduate program identify as fans of commercial media properties like the Muppets, Star Wars, and Marvel Comics. This has informed their academic contributions, allowing them to bring to bear certain industrial and cultural questions about identity, authorship, legitimation, agency, creativity, collaboration, and labor. But I assume that they came to these subjects because the artifacts captured their imagination first. I also cannot remove musicians from the commercial and regulatory conditions that shape their work. In my late adolescence and early adulthood, I caught myself in the contradictions of authenticity and debates about art and commerce. In doing so, I denied corporate influences at work in the production and distribution of much of the music I enjoy.
Music engendered a sense of possibility for me. Yet as I developed as a scholar in media and cultural studies, it became more difficult to neatly differentiate between the musical texts and producers I align with and others’ fan objects. It also made it impossible to cling to binaries that conveniently avoided all of the contradictions and mess inherent to creating fundamentally commercial work for marketable audiences. This isn’t to suggest that all creators are guided by profitability in the production of art or media. But I’m unconvinced that coolness allows us to answer those questions so much as prevent us from truly confronting them. If we cannot yet dispense with coolness altogether, perhaps we can trouble the perception that it’s a term that is diametrically opposed to whatever is arbitrarily determined to be uncool. In doing so, we might open up the possibilities once closed off by such an unsatisfying and exclusionary word.
Last night, I got my nose out of the book I was reading (Ien Ang’s Desperately Seeking the Audience, for curious parties) and went out to shake a tail feather. The Majestic, a local venue in Madison, hosted a hip hop-themed 80s vs. 90s dance party.
Obviously, I don’t need to defend the merits of hip hop’s golden era. OutKast’s ATLiens, Tribe’s Midnight Marauders, Queen Latifah’s All Hail the Queen, Wu-Tang’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Nas’ Illmatic, Biggie’s Ready to Die, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, De La Soul’s Stakes Is High, Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly, Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride, Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s Very Necessary, Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, MC Lyte’s Lyte as a Rock, and The Fugees’ The Score all belong in the history books as much as they do in my car. Since this music scored my adolescence and many bedroom dance parties, I was happy to raise a glass and toast myself on the floor.
As this was the music of my youth, it was also the music of my feminist awakening. While I recognize that many female MCs don’t associate with the term “feminism,” their commanding presence and demand for self-respect and sexual autonomy was hugely influential on how I came to understand the world and my place in it as a teenage girl and later as an adult woman. Later I’d acquire a copy of Tricia Rose’s definitive Black Noise, a tremendously influential piece of hip hop scholarship that I believe has only been surpassed by her more recent effort, The Hip Hop Wars.
Lest we encase this era of mainstream hip hop in amber, there are a number of contemporary female MCs whose careers and artistic contributions warrant attention, including Psalm One, Dessa, Las Krudas, Nicki Minaj, Invincible, Miz Korona, MicahTron, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Lady Sovereign, JNaturaL, Rita J, and Jean Grae, among so many others. Let’s also not forget the veteran female artists who rose to prominence during this point in popular musical history and are still in the game. Missy forever.
Last night, the deejay represented Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets, Lauryn Hill in Nas’ “If I Ruled the World,” along with Janet Jackson, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Queen Latifah, and (after I checked in with one of the deejays) TLC. But c’mon–this was a monumental time for women in hip hop, as well as female R&B groups who were influenced by hip hop and hip hop culture. A handful of songs hardly suffice when you could devote an entire night to women’s contributions to hip hop during this period.
To be fair, I didn’t hear Positive K’s “I Got a Man,” Bone Thugs’ “First of the Month,” or the Bad Boy remix of Craig Mac’s “Flava in Your Ear” either. But as fine a time as I had last night, there were a number of voices I’d like to have heard from folks like Amil, Erykah Badu, Eve, Lil Kim, Rah Digga, Foxy Brown, maybe even dig deep into the crates for some Sparky D. Some of them may have gotten their due after I left. But all of them necessitate future dance parties. Maybe some clips can help get one started. Feel free to make requests.
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.
There are few things more soothing and logical to me than spinning around a color wheel. It may be a strange assertion, born of growing up with parents who ran a graphic design company during my childhood. It most certainly comes from seeing Philip Glass’s “Geometry of Circles” on Sesame Street.
As I got older, I took to Heathers for similar reasons. You can apply color theory to the semiological associations the girls have with colors. Ringleader Heather Chandler is always wearing red, a primary color that connotes dominance, dynamism, and power. She is constantly followed by Heather Duke, whose signature color is green — a color associated with sickness (she has bulimia) as well as envy (she wants to be Heather Chandler). Green is also a secondary color that complements red.
This plays out similarly with Veronica Sawyer, the rebellious non-Heather who is part of the clique nonetheless. She is associated with black and blue. Blue is a primary color associated with melancholy and, wouldn’t you know it, her nerdy childhood friend Betty Finn likes to wear orange, a secondary color that is blue’s complement. Heather McNamara, a cowardly sort, is associated with yellow and pointedly doesn’t have an underling who wears purple. Who knew colors could suggest teenage girl social hierarchies?
Anyway, with this spirit in mind, I thought I’d post a couple of music videos that play with color. You don’t have to wax semiological to enjoy them. Since they can’t be embedded, I’ll take a note from my friend Caitlin and post a picture of the artist that you can click on.
As a means to enrich my interest in girl groups, I’ve been looking for literature on the subject. One book my thesis adviser recommended was English writer Charlotte Greig’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?: Girl Groups from the 50s on . . ., which covers the girl group era (roughly 1960-1964) from both sides of the Atlantic, as well as girl groups that predated the era and formed (and continue to form) in the wake of its legacy.
I liked this book fine. It’s a good primer for folks just getting into girl groups (I’d certainly assign the chapters on the Brill Building or Motown to an undergrad class on gender and music culture). It’s smart and celebratory yet critical of the gender politics of girl groups without alienating a reader not hip to, say, Judith Butler’s thoughts on gender performativity. Greig also employs her trade skills as a journalist, so there’s lots of neat and valuable first-person accounts from folks like Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich and members of the Marvelettes and the Velvelettes. And there’s lots of fascinating tidbits Greig throws in that could be spun into their own books. For example:
Did you know that American Bandstand started as a radio show on WFIL in Philadelphia, on the outskirts of town? Did you know that it became a television show because bored Italian American teenage girls from the neighboring West Catholic High School would hang out after school and start dancing to the records? Did you also know that existing within this group were class tensions that were easily reflected in girls’ particular clothes and hairdos? I certainly didn’t.
Perhaps unsurprising, but did you know that Brill Building songwriter/producer Ellie Greenwich worked with her husband Jeff Barry, who elbowed her out of songwriting and production credits because he assumed he’d be the breadwinner while she had the babies? They divorced. :(
Did you know that almost all of the girl groups Greig discusses (and/or interviews) failed to be compensated for their services? Perhaps unsurprising when you consider the larger context of the early days of rock music and its shady legal dealings with publishing and recording rights, but pretty important when considering the supposed “disposability” of girl groups.
Did you know that Reparata from Reparata and the Delrons (one of the best-named girl groups of the golden era) got her name from a saint? Kinda fascinating. I’d read an entire book on girl groups and Catholicism!
Did you know about that the role the British Invasion had in dismantling the girl group era was largely a myth? Many believe that English rock groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and their brethren were responsible for the demise of the girl group era (which is poor history, as you can see American acts like The Beach Boys, The Temptations, and The Supremes right up there with The Fab Four on the pop charts). Greig does well to remind her audience that groups like The Beatles were actually inspired by girl groups and covered many girl group songs. Instead, Greig attributes pre-mature folds of girl group songwriting factories like the Brill Building out of fear that the British Invasion would spell their demise.
Did you know that there were class differences between the girl groups at Motown? I certainly didn’t but, again, it makes sense. According to other groups like The Marvelettes, The Supremes were given unequal treatment at the record label because they were savvy, culturally-aware city girls. Other groups were comprised of country girls who didn’t grow up in Detroit and, thus, were not as hip or poised.
But these gems, which are often dropped without too much comment, speaks to my biggest problem with the book: it is simply too broad. And at just over 200 pages with a scant bibliography, the fact that she covers so much ground without digging deeper really left me wanting.
That said, I think this book does a noble job broadening the definition of what a girl group is. Greig’s principle mission, as she defines from the outset, is to dispense with the myth that girl groups were born in 1960 and died in 1964. She maintains that girl groups started forming post-World War II and are still forming and recording today (“today” meaning the late 1980s at the time of her writing).
She also argues that girl groups are not adherent to a particular genre, which, read alongside the Rhino girl group box set, seems very true. The girl group sound was actually not one singular generic entity but incorporated R&B, pop, soul, folk, and the blues. Thus, after the 1960s, when the girl group legacy endured, groups would revisit it while folding in reggae, disco, punk, funk, electronic music, and many other styles. And, as girl groups evolved, Greig argues that sometimes they became more politically minded. Particularly in the 70s, funk-based girl groups like Honey Cone tended to endorse a “black is beautiful” agenda.
And acts like LaBelle expanded how black could be beautiful by incorporating the (traditionally white, male) glam- and art-rock stylings of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. However, my partner is quick (and right) to point out that Funkadelic adopted a similar performance style at around the same time, so let’s view LaBelle and Funkadelic alongside one another.
Punk bands like Blondie and The Slits became more makeshift in their look and self-reflexive and parodic in their approach to addressing femininity and consumer culture in their songs. But I feel like Greig gives more focus toward Blondie, so lets look at The Slits more closely.
I do find it a little disconcerting that The Runaways, The Bangles, and The Go-Gos are largely broadsided in this discussion. If two of Greig’s principle concerns with girl groups are: 1) they tend not to have female instrumentalists and 2) they tend to be controlled by male managers and producers, it would have been nice to see her discuss girl bands who encountered and had (varying degrees of) success breaking free from male control.
This omission makes Greig’s inclusion of Vanity 6 and Mary Jane Girls a bit of a hard sell for me. Despite being multi-racial and (often celebratory and raunchy) advocates for sexual agency and pleasure, both groups were also formed and almost completely controlled by men (Prince and Rick James, respectively). As Greig points this out, I would have appreciated a broader context that I feel dicussing girl bands could have provided.
That said, I do think the inclusion of Bananarama is interesting, as they had a punkish, thrift-store edge and often linked themselves to the girl group era by covering song like The Velvelettes’ “He Was Really Saying Something.” I suppose this gets us into the dangerous territory of “wearing” and “trying on” race, but I’ll let you decide.
I also appreciate that Greig included hip hop in the discussion of girl groups, vis-à-vis Salt-N-Pepa, though fear that past lesser-known acts like Northern State, hip hop has historically favored solo artists to groups and has provided scarce resources for women, whether on their own or rhyming with friends.
I’d also be curious as to what Greig would say about groups from my youth like TLC, En Vogue, SWV, The Spice Girls and, during my high school years, Destiny’s Child, 3LW, and Dream. And of course, if we’re expanding girl groups to include punkier acts, I wonder what Greig thinks of Vivian Girls and Mika Miko alongside neo-retro acts like The Pipettes, as well as acts like The Pussycat Dolls who are, for better or for worse, one of the few integrated, multi-racial girl groups to achieve mainstream success since The Ronettes.
Again, all worthwhile endeavors; each in need of their own book for further inquiry.