Covered: The Tom Tom Club

A perk to becoming a feminist media scholar is encountering two different books that argue Barbie’s queer merits. For class, I recently re-read the introduction to Erica Rand’s Barbie’s Queer Accessories. It begins with Rand putting together a lecture and debating whether to include a cover photo from On Our Backs of a woman inserting the doll into her vagina (side note: I especially like that her lesbian colleagues advised her to consult her horoscope). While proctoring an exam, I read a portion of Alice Bag’s memoir Violence Girl where the author recollects using the iconic figurine as a masturbatory aid. I love my job.

One of Rand’s major points–which Bag reinforces–is that in the process of recollection, adults reshape their childhood experiences. At some point, I plan on diving into ethnographic research. One thing I’m especially interested in sussing out is how race and gender shape generic affiliations, something I’ve encountered time and again as a music history instructor for Girls Rock Camp. I’m particularly interested in how non-fan and anti-fan practices around pop music and riot grrrl are informed by race and gender. But I wonder how much of myself I’m putting into such a project and whether I’m interfering. I keep thinking about the unreliability of memory and how people often embellish or exaggerate their childhood fan practices to make themselves appear intelligent or subversive, either for themselves or for a researcher.

But these recollections are also in the service of developing a larger set of truths we puzzle through as we get older. I don’t know why I took my Ariel doll on a date to see her own movie as a kid. But my intense fan identification with The Little Mermaid so informed my fantasy world that I put together a children’s book that staged mermaids in various tableaux to form all 26 letters of the English alphabet (mom’s Erté books helped too). I also spent multiple summers flitting around the deep end of the neighborhood swimming pool. As a preteen, I couldn’t quite articulate why I felt compelled to rescue a bundle of discarded Barbies and Disney princesses from my closet and put them in various sexual positions, nor could I explain why I reproduced mermaids and Fantasia‘s naked fairies and topless centaurettes in countless drawings. One year, I drew a mural of these unadorned mythological female creatures and gave it to my mother for Christmas. I thought I was honoring the nude form. Now I think I just wanted to see some breasts.

Of course, I didn’t just draw sex scenes and lagoons. I often drew outfits because I imagined I’d grow up to be a famous designer (pity I never learned to sew). But I especially loved creating panoramas that took weeks, if not months, to complete. They were filled with various characters and involved every crayon, map pencil, and marker in the box. I’m sure part of this was the result of being a shy only child. I often drew myself some friends who were cruising the mall, gossiping between classes, living in the Old West, or hanging in a spaceship. Usually I talked to them as I formed them into being. It’s weird to me now that whenever I encounter a blank canvas, I want to fill it with saturated color planes and abstract geometric shapes. As a kid, I was obsessed with drawing people. They all had V-shaped heads, most of them were girls, and sometimes they had purple skin. But I was equally interested in placing them in painstakingly-detailed settings. If I put a group of schoolgirls in a library, it was just as important to establish each girl’s individual characteristics as it was to realistically depict the room’s layout and the spine and cover of each book. I was an indoor kid for sure.

Tom Tom Club (Sire/Island, 1981)

The colors and character detail in artist James Rizzi’s cover for the Tom Tom Club’s self-titled debut are what resonate most with me. In the sixth grade, I happened on “Genius of Love” while listening to 104.1 KRBE some Saturday night. Houston’s top 40 station ran a dance program called “The Beat” which they’d broadcast live from a local night club. Though I wasn’t comfortable dancing in public until college, I was obsessed with the show and would often shimmy and shake alone behind closed doors, pretending I was older and in some place far away from my childhood bedroom in Alvin, Texas. I immediately connected with the hook and was fascinated by the singer’s breathy soprano. I also wondered what all the business about cocaine and James Brown was about. The song seemed kind of novel and a little bit dangerous, like I shouldn’t be up dancing to it. I’d find out soon after that the Tom Tom Club was a side project of that band that wrote that song about arson my parents kind of liked. Then Mariah Carey sampled “Genius of Love”, but by then I was totally over her and listening to Björk.

Since this post has been all detour at this point, let me issue a corrective. First of all, the chubby girl dancing in the “Fantasy” video is better than an army of Bee Girls. Actually, I wore out my Music Box cassette and was so totally not over Mariah Carey by seventh grade. It’s just how I wanted to be perceived. Even though I prided myself on being smart enough to locate the sample, I didn’t know that “Genius of Love” was (and remains) one of the most sampled tracks in pop history. I also had no idea who Ol’ Dirty Bastard was at the time, but I’d learn. I couldn’t admit it at the time, because I was reading Rolling Stone and claiming to hate pop music, but I was secretly thrilled that Carey loved “Genius of Love” enough to sample it. This is why I didn’t protest when the girls in my junior high P.E. class insisted on using “Always Be My Baby” for our aerobic routine, why I perform “Honey” and “Shake It Off” at karaoke, why I just belted “All I Want For Christmas” in my car the other day while running errands, why I wish I were young enough to have my heart broken by some eighth grade scrub when “We Belong Together” comes on, and why I’ll always defend “Vision of Love” and “Someday.” The woman is responsible for “Anytime You Need a Friend”. Let’s take it to church.

As I grew older, my love of the Talking Heads and the Tom Tom Club would develop simultaneously. In part, this is because I ultimately think you can’t have one without the other. I know David Byrne and Brian Eno so dominated the studio process that it necessitated bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz forming the Tom Tom Club to have another creative outlet. But it’s hard not to hear the interplay between punk, reggae, soul, and dance music on tracks like “Cities” that so defines each member’s omnivorous approach to pop music.

I’m also aware that their cerebral, global-minded pop music is not without its problems. White privilege and class privilege are often twined and embedded within musical eclecticism. Often the same folks who can afford a richly diverse record collection or are given the opportunity to record in the Bahamas or attend art school occupy ascendant class positions. This is certainly true of both bands. Yet I like that both groups attempted to do absorb and endorse popular music from various parts of Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The first Tom Tom Club record was co-produced and engineered by Talking Heads’ contributor Steven Stanley, and also boasted Uziah “Sticky” Thompson on the drums and former Wailer Tyrone Downie on the keys. Borrowing from Don Letts’ recollection in his documentary Punk: Attitude it is also upsetting to me how the video to “Wordy Rappinghood”–a song about the malleability and seismic impact of language–was once denied airplay on MTV because, even though the clip was a cartoon based on Rizzi’s design, the network assumed the hip hop-influenced track “sounded too black”.

What I appreciate most about the Tom Tom Club’s first record is that it attempted to be inclusive and made that seem fun to all involved parties. The Talking Heads’ rhythm section played alongside a few reggae greats, King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew, and Weymouth’s sisters. Their debut album may have been recorded in the Bahamas but the album–which still sounds contemporary–feels like it’s unfolding in your basement with you providing backup vocals. The Tom Tom Club made it seem like you could cut a similar record that was just as much fun to make with your friends. That doesn’t mean the results weren’t as problematic as the band’s name, which simultaneously references Frantz’s kit and recalls colonial appropriation. Appropriation is problematic, but it’s also messy and not necessarily one-sided. Tom Tom Club may have originally been pitched to the gallery crowd. But “Genius of Love” has been incorporated and reassembled so often that it doesn’t belong to anybody. Good art can do that, especially when it uses every crayon in the box.

One comment

  1. Lindsey

    Stumbled upon your blog and loving what I’m seeing. Great commentary and insight!

    I’m glad (and feeling less alone) to see a fellow Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club fan that is also aware of the privilege issues. I love them, but man, can’t ignore the appropriation going on (though it is tricky, as you pointed out). I would love to find out if the band members were ever asked about it or even addressed it, before or even today. Someone had to have asked at some point. I do recall they did address (or, at least, one of them did) about recruiting black musicians during the Remain In Light era, but not going much further than that.

    I was a Tom Tom Club fan before I fell for Talking Heads. But yeah, you can’t be a fan of one without being a fan of the other, no argument there!

    What you said about “Wordy Rappinghood” (one of their finest songs, by the way) reminded me about what I read in the book “I Want My MTV”. Frankly, I’m not surprised they banned the song. They didn’t air black musicians’ videos for a long while. They had to be forced to. Astounding.

    Thank you for this and your blog. It’s great to find and read fellow feminist music geeks.

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