Tagged: country

Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s by Jacqueline Warwick

Cover to Girl Groups, Girl Culture (Routledge, 2007); image courtesy of routledgemusic.com

For financial reasons, I was only able to swing one day of Fun Fun Fun Fest so I’m blogging while many in this fair city are catching some good music in Waterloo Park. Although, admittedly, if you’re gonna do one day of the festival, I think yesterday was the way to go. I got to check several bands I’ve never seen before off my list: No Age (who I’ve missed by a marrow margin at least three times), Jesus Lizard, Pharcyde, Les Savy Fav, and Death.

But if you have the scratch, please make sure everyone sees one of Mika Miko’s last shows ever on the black stage at 2:55. I might try to get down there later just to hear it from the other side of the fence.

Mika Miko’s exceptional presence on this year’s bill seems as good a place as any to remember that, as Melissa at GRCA astutely pointed out in her recent post, this year boasts a very dudecentric line-up. So I’ll review Jacqueline Warwick’s book Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s book in the hopes that at least one historically significant girl group or all-female band will reunite for next year’s FFFF like Death did this year. And like the Shangri-Las did at CBGB’s in 1977.

As much as I hate comparing women’s work so as to pit them in opposition, Warwick’s book is a tremendous example of how effective it can be to narrow the scope of the cultural moment being covered, something I wish Charlotte Greig would have considered when penning her book on girl groups. While Greig truncates the history of the girl group era in order to broaden the definition of what a girl group is, Warwick focuses primarily on this brief but important moment in history (roughly between 1958 and 1965), considering its ongoing influence as an epilogue.

By taking this approach, Warwick considers the girl group era and its participants from several different, often surprising, areas of inquiry. As a result, she proves the cultural signficance of a popular form dismissed by many as superficial, polished, and phony who instead tend to favor rock music’s supposed transcendent raw authenticity, and argues strongly that this binary construction is inherently gendered. Duh, and amen.

Warwick posits that one of the most important things about the girl group era was its insistence on putting girls and young women in the spotlight, introducing a complex, celebratoryn and at times contradictory performance of what the author calls “girlness”. Often, these ladies were working class, and of African American or mixed racial and ethnic heritage. They had few options for financial mobility and minimal career prospects being marriage, motherhood, clerical jobs, and day labor. Forming vocal groups together and cutting records gave them access to other opportuntities toward professional advancement and personal growth, expanding the idea of girlhood as an identity across race and class lines. 

Sometimes these groupings resulted in the cultivation of considerable, devoted fan bases that, in The Supremes and The Ronnettes’ cases, were comparable to Beatlemania. Some of those fans were even other male-only rock bands, like The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and later, The Ramones. Take that, pop-rock, girl-boy binaries!

In other words, I’m telling you to read this book.

One thing I appreciate about Warwick’s book from the outset is the celebration of the female voice. As I’ve long believed and argued extensively in this blog, we cannot give short-shrift to singers. While they can assuredly be tokenized and objectified, but they can also be empowered, embodied, and forge their own agency. Heartenly, she finds much going on with the voice, a distinct instrument no matter how it may have been manipulated or homogenized by label owners like Motown’s Barry Gordy and producers like Phil Spector and his overwhelming wall of sound. She hears the genteel precision of Diana Ross’s soprano, the urgent purr of Ronnie Spector’s husky alto, the untrained wavering of Shirelle Shirley Owens’s pitch, the gutteral inflections on Supreme Florence Ballard’s tone, the put-on nasal affectations of Broadway-trained groups like The Angels, the racial dimensions of Dusty Springfield’s blue-eyed soul, and the teenaged monotone of Shangri-La Mary Weiss.

She also hears these girls singing to one another, often in their own forms of feminine dialect and for the purposes of providing support and advice. On record, acts like The Dixie Cups, The Crystals, Betty Everett, and The Velvelettes would pepper their songs with seemingly nonsensical words and phrases like “iko iko,” “da doo ron ron,” “shoop,” and “doo lang doo lang,” often provided by backing vocalists as a means of support for the lead vocalist, who might be intimating her feelings about burgeoning romance or her conflicted feelings in the aftermath of a break-up.

Often, these girls were providing one another moral support and providing advice as well. While Warwick notes that advice songs tended to be the domain of girl groups with African American members like The Velvelettes, The Shirelles, The Chiffons, and The Marvelettes, they often imparted wisdom to their audiences that they learned from their mothers or their sisters, as well as sharing what they’ve learned from their own experiences. In doing so, these songs provided a counterargument to the assertion that girl groups only sang about boys and also expanded female discourse in popular music by including the words and experiences of generations of women into then present-day pop songs by girls.  

It cannot be ignored that while many girl group songs were written by men, not all of them were. As mentioned elsewhere, Brill Building stalwarts like Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich, and Carole King were of paramount importance to the era. Many of these women, like Greenwich, wrote about seemingly teenage issues like young love and treated it as legitimate, at times giving it life-and-death importance, as she did on The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack.” 

King is a particularly interesting case as well. Before striking out on her own as a solo artist, she wrote many important songs for girl groups. Some songs, like The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” address the troubling and dangerous aspects of patriarchy and oppression, and have been covered to harrowing effect by bands like Hole and Grizzly Bear.

Other songs King penned gesture toward the era’s prescience regarding shifting cultural attitudes toward feminism, female agency, and sexual autonomy, as on The Shirelles’ anthemic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” 

Girl groups were also clearly singing with one another, as girl groups often were comprised of siblings and relatives who wore matching outfits and performed intricate choreography to suggest that these girls were a unit, despite at times having clearly defined lead singers and stars who (especially in Diana Ross’s case) were thin and had a more conventional look and sound.

It was this image coordination that made The Ronnettes able to ingratiate night clubs when they were underaged, gave them the confidence to perform at those night clubs, and provided them with a sense of belonging that made them tough enough to brave any New York City street. It also makes this sense of actual or engineered sisterhood and camderadie seem especially fragile when success encroaches on it, as the tragic dimensions of Estelle Bennett and Florence Ballard‘s post-girl group lives remind. 

Warwick shies from making any explicitly queer connections to girl groups beyond passing references to Springfield and Lesley Gore’s orientations and their relationships with the closet. I would have liked a bit more discussion of the queer dynamics of the groups’ homosocial bonding both on- and off-record. A brief appraisal of queer fandom (seemingly most pronounced among certain circles of gay men, though not exclusively) would also have been appreciated.

That said, I do appreciate Warwick reminding her readers of girl groups’ continued impact. As this is the section of the book that gets less focus, it would be worthwhile to read Warwick’s and Greig’s books together to get a larger sense of how punk, hip hop, and contemporary pop music were influenced by girl groups.

I would hasten to add country music to the list of genres that were shaped by this era. Given last night’s Saturday Night Live, which featured crossover star Taylor Swift as both host and musical guest (a rare opportunity for most pop stars, unless they are Justin or Britney). Watching her play a brace-faced teenager in a skit about parents who are worse drivers than their kids and her performance of “You Belong To Me” complete with careful, song-appropriate gestures, it was clear to me that the girl group era continues. As Mika Miko performs one of their last shows later today, I’ll wonder where it’ll permeate next.

Jazmine, Miranda, Zooey and cotton: the fabric of their lives

I keep forgetting to write about Cotton Incorporated’s Fabric of My Life ad campaign. But there seems to be a demand (specifically from my friends, the Kristens, who urged me to do a write-up at lunch today). So, let’s turn this draft into post, friends.

In a nutshell, three female singer-songwriters (Jazmine Sullivan, Miranda Lambert, and Zooey Deschanel, respectively representing R&B, country, and crossover indie pop) retool the jingle to let you, the (female, aged 18-34) consumer see just how easy, functional, versatile, and, above all, hip and stylish cotton is. The campaign, created by DDB, was launched in April, with 30-second spots running on television and the Internet.

To my knowledge, the print campaign will launch sometime this summer. This could suggest that the campaign isn’t doing so well. My hunch, though, is that magazines, now crippled by the recession, have been tightening their advertising budgets throughout the 2000s in the wake of several publication folds as more people have become reliant on computers, search engines, and social media to provide them with information.

The campaign has a micro-site, complete with extended versions of the television ads, behind-the-scenes-footage, interviews from the spokeswomen, customizable interactive style books, and Facebook applications. Personally, I thought the micro-site was pretty useless. I built a style book and didn’t need Cotton Incorporated to tell me that I like bright solids, flats and sneakers, minimal yet quirky jewelry, and an overall elegantly off-kilter look. I’ve been dressing myself for some time now. But the micro-site’s existence is interesting and a clear indication of how advertising is evolving and making itself appear more individualistic and available to John and Jane Websurfer.

I find the television ads interesting too, though I never actually saw them on the big glowing box in my living room (I saw them on the little glowing box in my office). While part of the same campaign, the three spots stand alone. They feature three different narrators with different musical styles, different “personal” styles (I assume these women have stylists), and different fan bases. Thus, they cultivate different images for themselves, which is evident in the narrative differences in both the songs and the ads. The two things they all do are 1) stare out a window as if inspired — perhaps by cotton? — and 2) play dress-up at the end of each ad, with the final shot being a closet door.

With Sullivan, we have an aspirational narrative — the opening line, “they said it was only a dream, and dreaming was only for fools” is accompanied by images of Jazmine at a photo shoot. As the song goes on, Jazmine assures us that dreams “are alive just like me and you” and “can be real if you let them.” We see her being touched up by various (African American, one white) stylists, strolling through an upscale urban area (that I’m guessing is Philadelphia, where she calls home), writing in a local coffee shop, and talking to (African American, one white) students in a music school.

With Lambert, we have a “back to my roots” narrative — the opening line “took a shot, shooting for the stars, working overtime” is accompanied by the glammed-up singer being photographed at a red carpet event. The next line “you and I know it’s a struggle for the high road; I keep it simple though” coincides with images of Lambert on her tour bus, writing, playing guitar, and cuddling her dog. Upon her return home, we see an excessive display of folksiness — feeding the chickens, tending to a horse, and fly fishing (!).

Finally, with Deschanel, we have a “personal day” narrative — the opening line “woke up today, it was another lovely day” underscores Deschanel performing a concert, before running off-stage (rather sheepishly) and reappearing at home, working on a song at the piano, where she also keeps Post-It notes. From there, she wanders the (Los Angeles?) streets, walking a bike around, looking for banjos at an outdoor market, and hitting up the record store.

I’d like to point out some disparity in popularity. In my estimation, Sullivan and Lambert are similarly matched as representatives of their genre — not superstars like Beyoncé and Carrie Underwood, but young, established artists with a growing fan base. This can be crudely calculated by the number of hits their YouTube clips received (13,655 for Sullivan, 13,884 for Lambert). Deschanel’s clip, however, was viewed 144,032 times. I don’t think this has to do with her popularity as a musician–She and Him, her project with M. Ward backed by Merge Records, is what my partner terms “NPR-big”. Rather, I think Deschanel the spokeswoman gets to capitalize on two key aspects of her public persona that the other two artists can’t–she is also an established actress and fashion maven.

And it’s pretty easy to see how these narratives play into generic conventions, and how those conventions are raced and classed. Sullivan, a black woman and R&B singer, is aligned with the city, her neighborhood (but not her home, which we don’t see beyond her closet), and educational programs within her community to “set an example” and “make a difference” (and probably shoulder some burden of representation). Lambert, who was raised in Lindale, Texas–a small, Christian, predominantly white farming community in East Texas– eschews the glitzy artifice of the entertainment industry for the “realness” of her roots. Deschanel, who was born into an entertainment family, lives in a quirky but assuredly upscale (and potentially gentrified) neighborhood that was bought by her career as an actor from a reputable family, which affords her considerable creative and leisure time.

So, while the spokeswomen may serve to be all things to all (female) people and get those people to buy from Cotton Incorporated, who those people are tellingly different from one another.