It’s really been over two months since my last post? Wow, time flies on the other side of the semester. After SXSW, I went to a conference and then it was Spring Break and now, well I’ve posted my students’ grades and gotten my own and Memorial Day weekend (along with WisCon and Christeene’s album release party) is just around the corner.
A lot has happened in those two months, hasn’t it? We keep losing great musicians (First Etta, then Whitney! Levon! MCA! Duck! Donna! Chuck!). Dan Harmon lost his job. We’re edging toward a recall election here in Harmon’s home state, which means I’m seeing a lot of Scott Walker’s hairy forearms in ads where he lies about job creation (vote against him June 5th). Kanye made a movie. So did my friend Brea. A few friends had kids–two of them made a set of twins together. Some friends came to visit. Annie Petersen wrote a piece for the latest issue of Bitch. I completed the first year of my PhD program.
I’d like to once again thank the people who came out to Get Off the Internet during SXSW and supported us financially or emotionally (often, it was both). As I was but one player and often not the engine driving the train, I’d also like to thank Tisha Sparks, Jax Keating, and Lynn Casper, who I would work with again in a heartbeat. I’d next like to acknowledge why I got off the Internet. This was a busy semester for me. We hired a new faculty member to our program. We brought in five new students for the fall. And we are sending off four graduates.
I also took a cultural theory seminar, a seminar on feminist research methods, and a seminar on director Agnès Varda. The first two were really tough classes and I wanted to make sure I was present enough in my studies to do justice to the reading material and the seminar papers I produced. The third course, as my friend Mary put it, was dessert. Varda’s a damn treasure. After each screening I was so full and giddy from feasting my eyes and brain on this filmmaker’s dizzyingly brilliant work that I often needed to savor the moment, which usually meant talking for hours with Mary. I also pitched a book proposal, which may or may not get picked up.
It also promises to be a busy summer for me. I’m working on a book chapter for an anthology and revising a term paper for publication. I’m also serving as acting co-editor for Antenna–my program’s media studies blog–for the next three months. I’m going to be an instructor for the first session of Girls Rock Camp Madison. I’m doing preliminary research on two projects I’m planning to turn into term papers (and then articles, because that’s how the game works). I’m going to Console-ing Passions to talk about Zooey Deschanel anti-fandom. I’m grading for some cash during the summer, and (like my partner) vying for some temp work as well. Hopefully I can score a little freelance money too. I’m prepping the class I TA next fall (goodbye, Intro to Public Speaking! hello, Intro to Television!). I’m going to spend some quality time at the Center for Film and Theater Research, because it’s ridiculous that I haven’t gone over there at any point this school year. I’m plant-sitting for my girl Sarah and I hope nothing dies. There’s other stuff I want to keep on the low for the moment. And I’ll be watching Girls because y’all, we need to talk about Girls.
I might also get some coffee with a former student because I’m that kind of instructor. You know, the kind you can call by her first name. And today I’m making a cat cake with Mary for the Varda seminar’s end-of-the-semester party. Well, and for Zgougou obviously.
But I miss writing. I miss being in the conversation. I miss sweating over a sentence in my pajamas. I miss the immediacy of having my fingers fly over an opinion. I miss you. I miss this part of me. So my plan is to adopt a MWF posting schedule. I have a back log of stuff to write about–those pieces on Before Sunrise and Chavela Vargas I promised, as well as Norah Jones and Faye Wong’s film work with Wong Kar-Wai, Girl 6, seeing YACHT and EMA in concert, and stuff I don’t know I want to write about right now.
I’ll say one more thing about this blog’s future. I’m taking a digital production course this fall. I’m not sure what all of this will entail, exactly. Since I try to go into at least once class a semester without a paper topic in mind, I find the uncertainty rather thrilling. But part of the point of this class is to get graduate students comfortable with TAing a new course on the subject that we’re offering in Comm Arts for undergrads. I’m absolutely taking this class so that I can TA the intro class later. For one, I think media scholars should have a handle on production.
For another, as a feminist media scholar I’m invested in closing the gender gap in university production programs and I think this is the next logical step. I fully take to heart Mary Celeste Kearney’s charge to melt the celluloid ceiling (y’all–she presented a paper on this at SCMS and went on a rant about this later at the conference #stillmymentor #whoiwanttobewhenigrowup). But one of the objectives of this course, as I understand it, is to have us work on media projects. All of my work in that class will go toward this blog, most likely toward developing a podcast series that I’ll launch in earnest after I finish course work the following spring. So keep that on your radar.
Finally, I thought I’d close with some stuff I’m listening to–at least when I’m not listening to Rihanna‘s Talk That Talk or the new Beach House record (sidebar: this thoughtful Pitchfork review once again proves that 2012 is critic Lindsay Zoladz’s year). Though I abstained from blogging, I never took off my headphones. Also, Sarah said she was looking for some summer music. So let’s kick out the jams.
That Grimes record is good y’all. It’s, to use music critics’ parlance, a grower. Her other records are good too and this song is not my favorite on Visions (it’s “Be A Body”). But I like that this video was shot at McGill (Canada reprezent), that the album art recalls a Routledge book that’s been masterfully defaced by a bored college student (Claire Boucher knows her audience), that this song–stripped away of its electronic affectations–basically sounds like something Roy Orbison would write, and that we get some naked, riled-up, male, sports spectator booty in the video. I hope you kill it at Pitchfork, Claire.
Santigold’s Master of My Make-Believe is an early contender for Album Art of the Year. So good. Like Annie Lennox before her, Santi White masters the art of passing as both male and female, and occupying the slippery space within the binary. I wonder how different the video for “Disparate Youth” is from Duran Duran’s “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” and if it’s because–to extend the comparison–Santigold is Simon LeBon-ny enough to wear floral prints with stripes while not using the shoot as an excuse for sex tourism. Then I watch it again.
Is THEESatisfaction’s “QueenS” video of the year? I think so. Party of the year? Without rival. Music journalist and personal heroine dream hampton directed the clip and I just love it. I smell the incense, I love the outfits, I’m humbled by the level of self-possession and skill with home decor. I also love their bell hooksian way with capitalization. awE naturalE is one of my favorite records of the year. So mellow, so subtly sexy, even more subtly complex, and so self-assured. This is music for brainy, grown-ass people. If you’re ever wondering what I listen for in a record, I listen for music by women and girls who know who they are and are open to share it with you; guitars optional.
As a culture of pop music engineers, the Swedes know their way around a groove so well that this song once again convinces me that we should buck the career Republicans and demand socialized health care. Charli XCX wrote this song and it would fit in Robyn’s canon, but it has its own snarl that I can’t get enough of. Bottom line: I’ve jogged to Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and I’ve toasted Lindsay Zoladz’s freelanciversary to it as well. It gets results. It’s that good.
Staying on the Reynolds piece for just a bit more, I wanted to give the nod to Maria Minerva because she’s got an album called Cabaret Cixous, she’s completing a masters in art and theory at Goldsmiths, and because if you really want to refine a search for music you think I’d like, focus on women who play electronic instruments. Just as I believe that the rural United States has a special relationship to punk, so too do I think that working with synthesizers and sequencers can be an inherently punk gesture. If you only need to know how to play three chords on your guitar to have a band, you often need even fewer faculties to play electronic instruments. When David Bowie began working with Brian Eno, they’d amass a bunch of keyboards for the studio and throw out the manuals because they didn’t want to know how to “properly” operate them.
Following my friend Ricky’s example, I’m a champion of the Shondes. Power pop should, above all else, hold sorrow and triumph closely in each hand yet not so tightly that both emotions slip through your fingers. Based on their music alone, this Brooklyn-based quartet has a profound sense of empathy. I recently caught them at a show in Madison, wherein bassist-lead singer Louisa Solomon made the following observations: 1. as you wrap up your 20s, more people you love die (preach, girl) and 2. as “Give Me What You’ve Got” intimates, women can be mean to each other. She offered both of these observations as inquiry, which is why I love her and this special band.
K.Flay gets my-my dark moments better than everyone and nobody can hellllp. Also, off-trademark Muppets.
If you follow Rookie, then you know those grrrls are spearheading this Scottish goth-pop outfit’s comeback. And just in time for tube top weather (help me embroider an upside-down cross on mine, Rookie staff).
And if you want to know what I’m cooking in my kitchen, that’s none of your business unless I invite you over for dinner. But Little Dragon is usually the soundtrack to time spent stirring the pasta, sauteing the onion, and sprinkling the white pepper.
Summer is ready when you are, y’all.
A day before leaving my last job, I received a text message from Kristen at Dear Black Woman, that damn near made me do a spit take. It said “blog request: can you pls tell/explain the love for bon iver? particularly white ppls love for the background story of bon iver?” My reply was “That fucking guy.”
Some of this vitriol isn’t even Justin Vernon’s fault. Frankly, his brand of white boy croonery is too inoffensive to prompt any reaction from me. The same can be said of Fleet Foxes. And while I do like Grizzly Bear and Department of Eagles, my fandom isn’t such that I’d staunchly defend them the way I would, say, TV on the Radio or Vampire Weekend or the Dirty Projectors. Nor is my anti-fandom on par with how I feel about Jens Lekman, who does the nervous Woody Allen routine to curry sympathy from women and hides that he looks like a model and is probably a jerk, like Woody Allen. I only opted out of one part of Whip It!, and it’s the pool scene where the couple makes out over a Jens Lekman song. I quite like how Ellen Page’s character cut herself off the line her indie rocker love interest strung her on, but can do without that entire subplot. I kept wondering what the derby girls were up to or if Alia Shawkat was cutting AP Bio to smoke in the bathroom.
This isn’t Lekman’s fault, though. It’s easy to conflate your opinion of a musician with your assumptions about their fanbase. I’m sure lots of chauvinist dudes dismiss Sleater-Kinney as shrill because they’re feminists, which means that all their fans are humorless feminist white women. Thus, we have to take care to separate the work from its popular reception. When I say I don’t like Fleet Foxes, what I actually mean is “if Pitchfork didn’t give their debut Album of the Year status, most people would dismiss them as dad rock for CSNY fans.” When my partner’s dad says he hates Bread, he’s probably reacting against his square older brother and all the schlock he heard in the early 70s when his band was trying to make it. He can’t be reacting against “It Don’t Matter to Me” because that’s a smooth summer groove.
I’d imagine Vernon’s exile resonates with many fans as a sign of authenticity–he was able to write such personal lyrics and deliver them with so much emotion because he led a cloistered life untethered by the modern material world and central heating. That and white people like caring about things. Frankly I’m unmoved by Bon Iver’s origin story, and more than a little suspicious of a white person with the means to retreat. Survivalism came into vogue at the turn of the twentieth century with organizations like the Boy Scouts of America. It may have been intended as a way for boys and men to get in touch with nature, acquire self-sufficiency, and forge intergenerational bonds. I don’t doubt that those lessons continue to be imparted. But it also seems like a neat way for white men to run around in the woods, fetishize a particular kind of masculine ideal, and reconnect with a pioneer spirit while conveniently erasing the racial injustices placed against Native Americans and enslaved people of color. It’s easy to go camping when you don’t have to live in a tent.
I remember back in 2007, when it circulated that Vernon recorded For Emma, Forever Ago in a cabin following his band’s dissolution, an epic break-up, and a bout with mononucleosis, but didn’t seek it out. Look, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote most of Magnolia in Bill Macy’s cabin, too terrified to leave his desk. It doesn’t change that the second hour is a slog, the frog rain is gimmicky but not insufferable, and the Aimee Mann sing along is quite moving. Tom Cruise also gives one of his best screen performances.
People are obsessed with legends and origin stories. If we weren’t, Hollywood wouldn’t continue to exploit this fascination with shitty comic book movie franchises. Likewise, classic albums get integrated into the canon because of surrounding lore and myth-making. Stevie and Lindsey and John and Christine were falling apart during Rumours. Captain Beefheart handed in Trout Mask Replica in six hours. PJ Harvey lived on potatoes during Rid of Me. Kanye recorded “Through the Wire” with his jaw wired shut, which is why he has to Watch the Throne now.
I’m also reacting against the assumption that I would like Bon Iver. I certainly fit his demo–politically liberal, college radio listener, Pitchfork reader, cisgender white lady, alive when Bonnie Raitt swept the Grammys, inclined toward male romantic partners. But I reject the heteronormative assumption that my hypothetical fandom as a white woman would be tied to finding him or his music sexy. When I finally listened to “Skinny Love,” long after Bon Iver signed with Jagjaguwar and he recorded a song with St. Vincent for the Twilight soundtrack, I felt cold, tired, and manipulated. I’m partly reacting against hipster dudes outfitting themselves in rumpled men’s attire that telegraphs fucking in the woods, or at least not copping to Robbie Robertson doing it first with greater success. But the cabin in Northern Wisconsin scenario doesn’t send chills down my spine. Duran Duran recorded a song about getting it on in either an actual or metaphorical Antarctica. It’s not sexy so much as it is deeply embarrassing, though not the most embarrassing song on Liberty.
Part of this contrarianism also informs why I yelled at my TV when Netflix recommends “Independent Features with a Strong Female Lead.” I contain multitudes, Netflix! I don’t want to fit too neatly in a type. But I’m more than a little disconcerted about what that type might say about my race and gender. Just like I don’t want people to think that I believe feminism is predicated on white women’s subjugation of women of color and thus that a movie like The Help would speak to my politics, I bristle at the idea that a nerdy white lady like myself would, by definition, listen to Bon Iver. Or the Smiths. Or Belle and Sebastian. Or the Cranberries. Or that I’d instinctively champion a Miranda July movie, because, as Kristen noted in a post that addressed white lady quirk, where is the black mother of John Hawkes’ children in Me and You and Everyone We Know?
A post on Bon Iver is really a post on whiteness, because over his songs’ crisp acoustic/ambient arrangements, Justin Vernon is articulating a very messy white masculinity. Whiteness has always been at the center of rock music, and frankly it’s hard for me to tell if Vernon’s doing something radically new with collapsing folk and blue-eyed soul. In this supposedly post-racial cultural moment, it’s common for hipster-friendly musical acts to bring the two together. Justin Vernon’s British counterpart is James Blake, a white boy who gets accolades from Pitchfork for bringing his intimate singing style to an of-the-moment electronic subgenre like post-dubstep. It seems robots do cry, most likely to Joni Mitchell records.
Many of Vernon and Blake’s white peers are at home with R&B. Mayer Hawthorne can’t sing worth a damn, but that doesn’t keep him from channeling Curtis Mayfield in his bedroom studio and connecting with a large audience. Jamie Lidell brings soul music’s immediacy into the present, proving himself to be one of the most talented composers and vocalists of his generation in the process. Blake and Lidell also come from a country with a deep, problematic love for black pop music. Jamiroquai wouldn’t exist without Stevie Wonder. Simply Red’s biggest hit was a cover of a song Gamble and Huff originally wrote for Labelle. The Rolling Stones worship Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Solomon Burke. Adele is channeling Dusty Springfield, who in turn was channeling Aretha Franklin.
Lidell was also at home touring with Beck, a full-grown (white) man who’s not afraid to cry or build a bridge between James Brown, Kraftwerk, and countrypolitan. Beck came into cultural relevance in a decade when Jeff Buckley covered Mahalia Jackson, Nirvana covered Leadbelly, the Blues Explosion recorded with R.L. Burnside while being called out as modern-day minstrels, and Radiohead could count Maxwell as a fan. In her essay “The Soft Boys: The New Man in Rock,” Terri Sutton argues that alternative rock was defined by a sensitive, self-reflexive white masculinity, but it also absorbed and appropriated soul, R&B, funk, and other generic expressions associated with black artists.
As Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style suggests, Vernon might set himself apart by having black artists accept him. Kayne West brought him in for “Monster” alongside Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and built “Lost in the World” around “Lost in the Woods.” However, white artists working with artists of color is as old as popular music itself. James Taylor worked with Gilberto Gil. Hall and Oates are embraced by black and white audiences. I believe West’s articulation of a black hipster masculinity, white hipsters’ quasi-ironic, quasi-sincere, deeply nostalgic, and highly performative fan appreciation for quiet storm R&B and new jack swing, and the Internet fostering an uneasy but fascinating integration are the key distinctions.
It speaks to why Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake channeling Color Me Badd for “Dick In a Box” captured so much public attention. It speaks to why a cheesy genre like yacht rock resonates, resulting in Warren G sampling Michael McDonald, Michael McDonald covering Grizzly Bear, and the cult phenomenon of a Web series that imagined the lives of James Ingraham and Loggins and Messina and brought Wyatt Cenac into millions of homes as a Daily Show correspondent. It gets at why I’m thrilled thrilled that any oldies radio format for my generation must include Adina Howard and SWV. It also explains why Bon Iver invokes Howard Jones and Back in the High Life-era Steve Winwood for “Beth, Rest” and it’s not totally left field. And it especially speaks to why Vernon would be involved with Gayngs, a loose assemblage of musicians that includes Andrew Bird and various members of Minnesota-based hip hop collective Doomtree that claims soft rock as its primary influence.
I don’t pretend that Bon Iver will unite a people, any more I can claim that Justin Vernon’s music as my own or that his performance of white masculinity is new or interesting. But parsing out the racial politics of genre hybridization, puzzling through the elision between ironic and sincere fandom and performance, and placing Vernon in that context is better than getting lost in the woods.
Yesterday, Katie Presley at Bitch posted a delightful news item: each track from PJ Harvey’s forthcoming album, Let England Shake, will be accompanied by a short film. Maybe this cinematic endeavor will tide her over until she scores a movie.
I have a lot of investment with such a project, particularly the manner in which it will be distributed. As someone who wrote her thesis on the Directors Label series (and owns all seven volumes), I’m fascinated by the uselessness of packaging music videos on VHS and DVD. Though it created a new problem with embedding, YouTube’s ubiquity assured video packaging’s demise. Yet music videos have a long history with at-home playback technology. We forget in a place and time when we have immediate access to our favorite acts, but it wasn’t so long ago that fans only really saw their favorite artists in concert. Among other things, music videos simulated a communal space between artist and fan, as well as embellished on the artist’s persona and the fan’s fantasy life. MTV of course was a precursor to YouTube and catapulted videos into the mainstream in the 1980s, effectively changing the course of cable programming and film editing in the process. But sometimes you really wanted to watch the clip for A Tribe Called Quest’s “Award Tour” right now but the network took it out of rotation and you forgot to tape it off the television. YouTube now takes care of that need on a second-by-second basis, though not without embedding problems, obnoxious advertising, or clips getting pulled. Before then, fans could fetish video compilations.
Most artists packaged their music videos as companions to their greatest hits collections. This was primarily the market imperative of pop artists like Madonna and Duran Duran, though left-of-mainstream artists like Massive Attack and Pavement played along. Video albums and short films based on song cycles existed alongside them, but were not as prevalent for a variety of reasons. It could possibly be because music videos don’t demand narrative continuity or because pop stars tend to be terrible actors, but the pragmatic reasons are cost and risk. Music videos are expensive to produce. Spreading music video concepts across an album or collection of songs is exponentially costly, especially since music networks are reticent to be casualties to their audience’s short attention span. Not everyone has a “Thriller” in them. Hell, Michael really only had one in him. Carving out 20-40 minutes of programming time to Depeche Mode’s Strange or Strange Two probably seems like a losing bet. Thus many segments were shown out of context on television. Video albums then maximized their medium potential as little-seen items that could slip out of circulation once an act’s rabid fan base got their fix. Yet the Pet Shop Boys’ It Couldn’t Happen Here and Kate Bush’s The Line, the Cross, and the Curve remain curios, as well as clues into their music and image. Possessing copies also says something about taste and fan engagement. The storage format they’re in (or have yet to be converted into) also says a great deal about visual media’s archival instability.
I’m also curious if a uniform artistic or narrative vision will be explored in Let England Shake, or if such things aren’t a concern. Last weekend, I was reading Carol Vernallis’ great essay on Madonna’s “Cherish,” video. In this piece, she attempted to bridge sonic and visual formal analysis with a critical understanding on artist-director relationships, production issues, song content, and representational politics come to bear on what is often dismissed as a solely commercial (and therefore inherently vapid) medium. Videos actually can tell us quite a bit about the artist, as well as illustrate how important sound and music are in our understanding and interpreting of film’s visual elements. As “Cherish” was directed by the late photographer Herb Ritts, with whom she frequently collaborated, I wonder if Harvey worked with Maria Mochnacz.
But videos are also abstract and open to interpretation in ways that differ from narrative films tendency toward plot and resolution. I was reminded of this when watching the video collection that accompanies Beach House’s Teen Dream. The original track list order is not maintained, thus destabilizing its organizational role as an album. There isn’t a sense of narrative or formal continuity between songs, heightened by different directors (including front woman Victoria Legrand) providing a distinct vision for each song. Some treatments work, most notably Kevin Drew’s direction on “Take Care.” Others did not. Showbeast’s puppet antics in “Norway” undermined the track’s stately elegance for me. This recalls criticism against music videos for compromising listeners’ imagination by imposing visuals onto something intangible, as well as misinterpreting a song’s intended or proposed message. Yet each video provides a window into interpreting the song and the band. With that spirit in mind, I can’t wait to see and hear what we think of PJ Harvey’s new record.
Welcome to a new decade, readers. I was wracking my brain for what the first post of the teens should be yesterday. It should be something substantial and prescient in big capital letters. But that puts a lot of pressure on a person. As a result, I backed away from my laptop and got a little bit of much-needed post-New Year’s Eve napping. I also burrowed deeper in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which I felt I needed to finish before I could think about anything else anyway.
But now that I finished the book and am heart-broken over tragic Laura Chase, let’s ease into my first entry of the new decade by writing about an album that came out in 1999.
This album came out my sophomore year of high school, but I didn’t listen to it until I was in college. I knew of Sleater-Kinney because magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin paid lip service to them. Later in high school, I heard some of their earlier hits on KTRU (you know, “Words and Guitar,” “Little Babies,” “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”). But I never really had my adolescent Sleater-Kinney feminist music geek phase like a lot of my contemporaries, probably because I was listening to Björk, Liz Phair, Cibo Matto, Erykah Badu, and PJ Harvey instead.
I would’ve made a little more room on my CD shelves, but I don’t actually remember seeing a Sleater-Kinney album in a record store until I was in college. The first cover I saw was All Hands on the Bad One. But the second one I saw was this one, and I’ve stared at it a lot more.
The Hot Rock is also my favorite Sleater-Kinney record, though The Woods and One Beat nudge for top ranking. Part of the reason might be that I felt like I discovered it. While I obviously hadn’t, I’d never heard any songs off this album until I was doing my own radio show. I wonder if this has anything to do with it being poorly received upon initial reception, as many bristled at the band smoothing over its once rawer sound (though I know at least one person who would disagree with that opinion). I also seem to remember some folks derisively referring to it as their “dance” record. But its dancability was a huge part of the record’s appeal for me.
It also let me know that they must be Joy Division and New Order fans. Listen to Brownstein and Tucker’s guitars on “End of You” or “Get Up” and tell me that they’re not doing their version of guitarist Bernard Sumner and bassist’s Peter Hook interplay.
This was really important for me. New Order ruled much of my adolescence, along with Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Erasure, The Pet Shop Boys, and Electronic (Sumner’s side project with Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant and Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr). Before I heard The Hot Rock, I liked Sleater-Kinney fine but felt that their interests in classic rock like The Who and Led Zeppelin, while interesting in terms of gender, gave me little to relate to musically. But this album made me think, sing at the top of my lungs, and dance my ass off.
Speaking of dancing your ass off, feel free to listen to one of their last shows, courtesy of NPR.
Also, I gotta give the ladies credit for setting the stage for what was to come. By 2004, people wanted to give credit to bands like The Rapture for creating dance-punk. I think Sleater-Kinney beat them to it, and managed to sound less dated in the process. They also gestured toward a band that I think had a continued impact on the music of this decade. At the beginning of the decade, a lot of people thought the key indie rock influence was going to be Gang of Four, but every third band I hear these days swipes from either Joy Division or New Order. How’s that for prescient?
Okay, I think there’s some of Gang of Four’s clangy electric guitar on this album too. “Memorize Your Lines” is one example I’ll offer.
But I can’t think of this album without poring over Marina Chavez’s cover photo, studying these three tough, professional ladies. Brownstein’s hailing a taxi to drive them to some unforeseen destination that I always imagine is the gig. Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss haul their gear and glance furtively at something outside the frame, ready to protect the unit from any unseemly element that doesn’t recognize that they’re not with the band but rather, they are the band. Wherever they’re going, they’re getting there together and splitting the cab fare. It’s as strong a feminist message of band solidarity and as hopeful a symbol of the untraveled road as I can find, and a gift I hope to share with you readers as we all embark on a new year together.
Lately I’ve been revisiting Robert Palmer, The Power Station, and mid-80s to early 90s Duran Duran. For some reason. It may have something to do with Duran Duran’s Liberty being the first CD I ever got. Again, for some reason. I’ve been offsetting this with Daft Punk in the car, so I can pretend I’m in Tron.
(Aside: The first tape I ever got? New Kids on the Block’s Hangin’ Tough.)
So, there’s probably two reasons for my Miami Vice-rock renaissance.
1. Glossy production aside, Power Station drummer Tony Thompson rocks it.
2. When my parents split up in the mid-80s, my dad moved to West Palm Beach and lived the single life for a while. One artifact that I wish he’d kept from this period was a glass he got from a night club called Banana Max. The glass was cylindrical, opaque, beige, and made out of (three-dimensional) naked women. Aside from a rock that he découpaged with a photo of Raquel Welch and my grandfather’s April 1970 Playmate of the Month jigsaw puzzle mounted on cardboard (both in my possession), this is the weirdest item owned by a male family member that has, in opposition, shaped my feminist beliefs.
The glass is also a document of its era. If you don’t have one, a copy of Riptide is the next best thing. And this is where Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” music video comes in.
As a feminist, I have trouble with this music video for one big, obvious, highlighter-yellow reason. It’s so blatantly sexist. The models who comprise Palmer’s backing band are normatively beautiful, musically inept, interchangable, ornamental, passive, and blankly spectacular. They’re kinda like a Busby Berkeley chorus line, only on sedatives and with visible nipples.
And yet. I can’t let this one go so easily. It’s an indelible image that is simple and yet iconic in design (it’s so effective that “Simply Irresistible” and “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” only mildly revise the concept). Thus, it’s also easily replicable. When you put “Addicted to Love” alongside another lexicon 1980s video like, say, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” it’s much easier to match (many people, including Jackson, tried and failed to reach or exceed that video’s epic proportions).
It’s also an easy concept to subvert, which is my primary interest. I’d like to highlight a few instances where women take on “Addicted to Love” and, in the process of recasting and reconfiguration, potentially disrupt the original music video’s sexist aims.
The one most of us probably all know is Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like A Woman,” which shows the singer flipping the script. Twain is Palmer, and she’s accompanied by a group of beefy, bronzed, eyelinered boys in mesh shirts and leather pants. While I think the clip’s clear limitation is that the switched-gender roles only go so far when it glamorizes and sexualizes Twain via skimpy attire in a manner similar to the girls in the original video, I do enjoy its winking, campy sensibilities (i.e., visible male nipples, having one of the boys lick his lips just like one of the girls in “Addicted to Love”). Also, I kinda read her backing band as gay.
Blink and you miss it, but Britney Spears also plays Palmer in a Pepsi ad from the early 2000s (start it at :57).
Kinda interesting. She’s got a shaggy wig and a suit on, which could potentially queer her. However, the cut of the jacket and dance moves highlight her breasts, reifying her femininity. Also, she has no contact whatsoever with the (female) background dancers. To me, this further emphasizes that “Addicted to Love” was an iconic video of the 1980s and fails to do much to subvert the original video or the singer. That she’s only in a suit and tie for ten seconds before going back to tight ensembles that show off her decidedly feminine torso furthers this claim. Britney and Pepsi are just trying on Palmer — they aren’t doing anything new or different with him; just using him to sell Pepsi.
There’s also Beyoncé’s “Green Light,” which I mentioned in an earlier post. She positions herself as both Robert and a member of the chorus through her costuming, queers her interactions with the chorus through choreography, and showcases an all-female band who are clearly playing their instruments.
And let’s not forget Kim Gordon, who covered the song as part of Ciconne Youth (a Sonic Youth-related project that, alongside Palmer, also championed and mocked Madonna — how very art school of them). This version makes me wonder what would happen if one of the girls in Palmer’s “band” let down her hair, smeared her make-up, snatched a microphone, and used Palmer’s song to mock him.
Also, my friend Curran posted the video in the comments section, but it’s too good not to mention in the post. Michelle Shocked sent up the music video in 1990 with “On the Greener Side,” taking the queerness, campiness, cleverness to the next level. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Curran!
In sum, when ladies put on the Palmer drag, we might a broader sense of how women can turn being spectacle into a position of power, as well as a position containing multiple possibilities for the performer.