If I’ve learned anything from teaching undergraduates in a survey on contemporary media this semester, it’s that many of them like Lorde. A handful of students claimed “Royals” as their song of the summer during first-week introductions. Two weeks later, I had students select four movies, TV shows, songs, and video games for a scavenger hunt where they had to determine what media conglomerates “owned” the media properties in question. One student threw “Royals” on the board, to the enthusiasm of several classmates. Then, over the last two weeks, we’ve returned to the U.S. and international versions of the “Royals” music video to talk about form and ideology, respectively. They’ve had a lot to say about each version, and were particularly interested in talking about her work and image. For a semester that began amid the backlash of Miley Cyrus’s divisive VMA performance (more on that later; I have thoughts), the New Zealand prodigy is as much a recurring presence in class discussion as pop’s reigning wrecking ball.
I’ve guided students through analyses of both versions of the video eight times in the past two weeks. So “Royals” and I are familiar with one other. I’m especially fascinated by how Lorde (with director Joel Kefali) chooses to present herself in the medium. Simply put, she has a cavalier attitude toward lip syncing. She often fixes her gaze on the camera with her mouth closed as the track plays around her. She takes this to its logical extreme in the video to her follow-up single, “Tennis Court,” by only mouthing the word “yeah.”
What does this mean, exactly? A student pointed out that Lorde’s “non”-presentation shifted her expectations for how female pop stars represent themselves in music videos. It’s more commonplace for pop stars to objectify themselves for the purposes of promotion. In addition, the burden of self-objectification is uniquely bestowed upon women. The expectation of how women represent themselves in music video tends to rely upon sexualization. We expect a red-lipped Miley to lick a mallet. We anticipate Rihanna to sit on a throne in a diamond bra and barely-there denim hot pants. I don’t believe that those expectations result in straightforward analyses that “prove” that female pop stars are complicit in male-driven fantasies of women’s objectification. As Susan Elizabeth Shepard, Ayesha A. Siddiqi, and Sarah Nicole Prickett argue, the hypnotic video for “Pour It Up” has more to do with female narcissism, athleticism, and solidarity than such blunt-instrument interpretations usually allow. It also complicates cultural readings of black female bodies as decorous, intrinsically sexual accessories that recirculated—powerfully, by scholars like Tressie McMillan Cottom—as a result of Cyrus’ VMA performance.
Of course, Lorde isn’t the only female pop star to stare at the camera. It’s traditionally used as a way to mark a singer’s vulnerability. In a tight close-up, we have access to her face as she fights back tears during emotional moments in her song. Sinead O’Connor famously shed a tear over the line “All the flowers that you planted, mama—in the back yard—all died when you went away” in “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Miley referenced O’Connor’s performance in “Wrecking Ball,” reportedly crying over the death of her dog and not the end of her relationship to Liam Hemsworth. Unfortunately, this homage resulted in an unfortunate exchange between the two singers that some note failed to engage meaningfully with intersectional concerns of pop music and appropriation.
Thus, it should be noted that Janelle Monáe also took up the indelible image of O’Connor’s tear-streaked face in the affecting video for “Cold War” a few years back. At certain points, Monáe is so caught up in the performance that she falls out of sync. When she gets to the line, “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me and it hurts my heart”, she lets the tears fall as the track breezes past her.
But Lorde doesn’t choose not to lip sync because she’s crying. In fact, her face deliberately obscures access to such emotions. My take on Lorde’s decision not to lip sync is that, in doing so, she is drawing attention to the artifice of music video as a popular form that often falls on women to perform. But, there’s something deeply calculated about Lorde’s self-presentation that is every bit as constructed as Miley’s tongue or Rihanna’s strip tease (or, for that matter, Katy Perry’s loin cloth in “Roar” and Britney Spears’ bottle of Fantasy perfume in “Work Bitch”).
One clear difference between the international and U.S. versions of the “Royals” video is Lorde’s presence. Lorde appears only a few times in the international version of the video—staring silently at the camera at the beginning and end of the video, and lip syncing part of the song’s bridge. In the U.S. version, there are more clips of her interspersed throughout. This is an important distinction to make. In New Zealand, she is more of a known figure. By now, it’s part of her lore that she was scouted by label representatives at junior high talent shows and signed a recording contract at 12. Until recently, she has also been rather protective of her image, only allowing a few pictures of herself to circulate. Lorde’s image is control. The tight, symmetrical framing and minimalist aesthetic of her videos illustrate this. Her lyrics—terse yet florid declarative statements about ambition, fame, and “authenticity”—reflect this too. Even her decision to record under the stage name Lorde—and not her given name, Ella Yelich-O’Connor—is one of control over people’s access to the “real” her. However, this reign on her image makes the integration of more footage of her in the U.S. version serve as evidence that Lorde is negotiating control over her image while attempting to enter the U.S. market on its terms.
But we must temper such readings about Lorde’s control over her image with her age and white female privilege. This is why I’m hesitant to sing her praises just yet. I don’t want to place undue emphasis on her age in a media culture that simultaneously gives precocious young white women such a wide margin of error and often exhausts their resources so quickly, an ideology of female success reinforced by the gendering of objectifying terms like “shelf life.” I want all female vocalists to have the room to stumble, record, and perform while accumulating life experience and gray hair. And obviously, whiteness has different cultural connotations in an international context. In New Zealand, whiteness must be interpreted alongside histories of colonialism. However, songs like “Royals” and “Tennis Court” directly confront issues like materialism, consumerism, and class privilege. With “Royals,” such commentary is inflected with—if not outright racism, as Verónica Bayetti Flores claims—a racialist edge that takes up hip-hop’s signifiers—gold teeth, Cristal, Cadillacs, bling, Queen Bs—in ways that are simultaneously “for everyone” in a post-racial context and embedded in distinctly black forms of cultural production.
As a white woman, Lorde gets to eschew these riches and strive for them at the same time. These are privileges that most teenage girls are not offered. Try as I might, I cannot imagine the mainstream incorporation of a video with a Māori sixteen-year-old girl stoically peering at a camera and choosing not to lip sync lyrics to her own song alongside images of her teenage male counterparts boxing each other. Thus, by not lip syncing, Lorde makes a principled decision to keep her mouth shut when so few young women are given the opportunity to open theirs at all. This is the privilege of cutting your teeth on wedding rings in defiance while reaching for the brass ring of mainstream success. My hope is that Lorde understands the weight of this and stares it straight in the face.
Last fall, I got around to watching Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. A friend recommended it based on my interests in female pop musicians and music video. Well, he didn’t recommend it. He predicted (correctly) that I would hate it. But he thought I might be able to make use out of it. For a little while, I thought about writing a term paper on it for my film score class. But then I watched the thing and decided that expanding my existent work on Kelly Reichardt’s use of sound and music would be the kinder, gentler option. I’m all about self-care. Final papers, grading, season affective disorder, and multiple Sucker Punch screenings would take their toll on even the steeliest individuals.
Is Sucker Punch that bad? Yes, particularly because it fails to live up to its potential. Snyder intended for his cinematic period comic about 60s-era female mental asylum patients to be a self-reflexive critique against fanboy culture’s leering, dehumanizing sexism. That may be true, but the critique gets lost in the execution. Babydoll (Emily Browning) is a survivor of family abuse who is put in an institution by her own stepfather after she accidentally kills her sister. To escape her present living condition, an impending lobotomy, and basically everything that’s ever happened to her, she uses fantasy as a retreat.
Unfortunately, Babydoll can only imagine herself as a sex slave, showgirl, or video game avatar. This is evidence of a damaged mind and the handiwork of self-reflexive fanboy screenwriters. Granted, all of Babydoll’s fantasies are about escape and vengeance, with a brothel pimp (Oscar Isaac) and madam (Carla Gugino) standing in for her stepfather, an orderly (Issac), and her psychiatrist (Gugino). Furthermore, Babydoll assembles a team of showgirls/patients (played by Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung) in order to enact collective revenge against their captors. This could be an attempt at female solidarity, though its potential is undercut by the presence of double agents within the ranks. The film does acknowledge that many survivors blame themselves and protect their abusers, as represented by the storyline for sisters Sweet Pea (Cornish) and Rocket (Malone). I suppose it would be disingenuous of the film to have Babydoll escape a lobotomy that assuredly would be performed on her in a mid-century mental institution. But even Babydoll’s fantasies seem constrictive, particularly because Babydoll and her co-hort’s bodies are diminished by music video objectification and CGI wizardry.
Where I find Sucker Punch especially hard to take is its use of pop music. Reflecting the (barely drawn) ensemble of female archetypes in the film’s main cast, the soundtrack is mainly comprised of well-known anthems and classic tracks by “empowered” female artists. Suspending any critique of historical accuracy—an argument I have little interest in with regard to period films if the music works—what troubles me is how the music is clearly supposed to aurally represent some notion of girl power. Björk, Annie Lennox, and Alison Mosshart are tough, resilient, iconic women who represent freedom, escape, and strength to many of their fans. But the film’s use of their music is as confusing as it is calculated. Having Browning cover “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” is one thing. Having it play over the film’s opening montage of Babydoll’s institutionalization following her sister’s death is awful. Using Björk’s “Army of Me” in a scene where Babydoll kills a supernatural foe is meant to be empowering but feels hollow. The same could be said of the girls’ final showdown to Mosshart’s cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Nothing about Sucker Punch feels victorious, no matter how many girls you put on screen or in the soundtrack. For one, I can’t imagine girls kicking that much ass while wearing stilettos and skimpy leotards (live-action Aeon Flux couldn’t do it). For another, I hate that actresses are required to look normatively sexy while kicking ass (at least Michelle Rodriguez didn’t wear heels in Machete). In her mind, Babydoll is a post-classic Hollywood Salome. But we never see Babydoll perform. Assuredly this is intentional. I seem to remember hearing that an alternate version of the film features Browning’s dancing, which left little to the imagination. Maybe this prevents us from objectifying her further. But I’d still like to see her claim ownership of her voice and body in those scenes. Unfortunately Babydoll and her girls are never people; this undercuts the film’s supposedly feminist intentions.
Snyder’s invocation of riot grrrl/girl power feminism resembles producer Max Martin’s deployment of feminist girl punk. Ann Powers observes that Martin harnesses the subgenre’s rebellious energy for anthems by artists like Avril Lavigne, P!nk, Britney Spears, and Taylor Swift. Linking Martin’s collaborations to the recent political mistreatment of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, Powers concludes:
The complex and still unfolding story of the Russian collective can’t be summarized in a short essay, much less a paragraph. But it’s worth contemplating Swift’s latest move, not only because it’s so powerful, but because it demonstrates how consequential a serious act of talking back can be. Punk is a great flavor enhancer, and in small doses, it adds a kick to pop. Take it straight, however, and you could be utterly changed.
I recognize all of this results from (and predates) riot grrrl’s mainstream co-optation. Such appropriation is bound up in the politics of power and consent. These issues are Sucker Punch’s (disjointed, unformed) thematic center. And the stakes are high, both on- and off-screen. The politics of power and consent shape science and the prison industrial complex, both of which are regulated by government and corporate interests. When confronted with difference, these institutions often take power away from patients and prisoners. How else can we explain the mistreatment of people like Sara Kruzan and CeCe McDonald, since it can’t be justified? How else do elected officials like Todd Akin and Jan Brewer get to subjugate women and girls’ bodies with their hate speech and dangerously applied legislative authority?
Powers notes that punk is about community rather than the individualist bent of many of Martin’s confections. Totally. For me, punk is all about struggle and resistance outside of and within those communities. It’s about the transformative potential of making do and speaking to (and spitting at) power. It’s about rebelling against society’s imposition on its own citizenry. It’s also about rebelling against three-chord song structure and mosh pit misogyny.
I also recognize that when it comes to popular culture and art, feminist critics should be cautious about being proscriptive. Perhaps Sucker Punch and texts like it are empowering to people. Jessica Hopper advises against dismissing Taylor Swift’s radical potential for young girls, something I’ve always tried to do as a Girls Rock Camp instructor despite my well-documented, self-reflexive antipathy toward her. So I don’t want to take that potential away from anyone. But I personally can’t abide what I perceive to be the film’s disempowering political message. The stakes are too high.
I saw Precious today and want to talk about it length, but need to process what I saw. I’d also like to get to Push, Sapphire’s book on which the movie was based at some point before the end of the year. For now, I’ll say this. I didn’t love it but I did like it, thought Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique were great, was heartened that my matinee screening had a good and diverse turnout, and think you should see it. But you may want to see it with someone and encourage your local theater to have a safe space where people can go if the movie becomes too intense or touches on frought emotions or horrible memories.
For the time being, I thought I’d mention the preview of a coming attraction. Nine, Rob Marshall’s screen adaptation of Arthur Kopit, Mario Fratti, and Maury Yeston’s musical (itself an adaptation of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2), comes out next week. You can view the trailer here.
So, I know very little about this musical. I only recently discovered the origins of its source material, which I haven’t seen (though, based on my less-than-enthusiastic viewings of La Dolce Vita and I Vitelloni don’t hold high hopes for it, unless Fellini allowed for self-deprication in his autobiographical film the way that Bob Fosse did in All That Jazz, a movie of a similar mold that I love). Beyond that, I knew Raul Julia starred in its Broadway debut back in 1982, the original production won many Tonys, and once heard someone sing “Unusual Way” at a family friend’s wedding, which is a really cryptic song choice for such a ceremony.
As for the film adaptation, I know the players. Rob Marshall directed Chicago and is at the helm here. Daniel Day Lewis plays Guido Contini, a tortured director. The women who populate his life are considerable — Marion Cotillard plays his wife, Penélope Cruz his mistress, Nicole Kidman his muse, Stacey Ferguson (aka Duchess Fergie Ferg) a whore he once knew, and Kate Hudson a fashion writer whose character has a song that was written for the movie. Oh, and Judi Dench is Contini’s costume designer and confidant.
So, I totally suspect a two-hour version of Julio Iglesias’s “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” with generous dashes of love for the authorial presence of male film directors. Also, I think this trailer gives you virtually no insight into what this story is about.
That said, I totally want to see this movie because:
1) I’m always interested in film musicals, whether they are good, bad, screen adaptations of stage musicals, or screen adaptations of stage musicals of feature films. Yes, this means I saw Hairspray and didn’t hate it as much as many of my movie geek friends did. But those matters should be saved for another post.
2) Unlike many people who hated Chicago (several of whom I suspect feel Marty or Roman got robbed out of a Best Picture Oscar for Gangs of New York or The Pianist), I actually enjoyed it. I felt the adaptation stayed true to the source material, deftly staged sequences that are actually going on in the protagonist’s mind, and felt like Catherine Zeta Jones, Queen Latifah, and John C. Reilly were great. I even enjoyed Renée Zellweger and Richard Gere, actors whom I otherwise would rather not watch in a movie. My only real complaint (which Jon Stewart shares), was that Bebe Neuwirth, who won a Tony for her portrayal of Velma Kelly was replaced by Zeta Jones. Otherwise, bring it.
3) Daniel Day Lewis can sing? The same guy who apparently prepared for There Will Be Blood by recording his character’s voice using early 20th century phonographic technology? I am there.
d) I’m fascinated by the presence of female pop stars in contemporary film musicals. As the golden age of film musicals has long since passed, it seems like the ones that do make it to the screen need a familiar face and voice, and they are almost always women with celebrated recording careers. Just as I wondered what Madonna brought to Evita, Queen Latifah brought to Chicago, and Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson brought to Dreamgirls, so too am I curious what Fergie is going to bring to Nine. While detractors might snigger that it’s fitting for the woman who sang “My Humps” and “London Bridge” to play a whore, I’ll counter that she’s the only singer we hear in the trailer. Yes, that’s her singing “Be Italian.”
e) In the movie, I’m interested in seeing a whore play a teacher to our genius director protagonist man. In real life, I advocate the decriminalization of prostitution and would like sex workers to get worker rights and benefits.
f) While I worry that these women are going to be portrayed as long-suffering, one-dimensional objects of Condini’s affection, I want to see a movie that boasts so many actresses. Especially actresses I enjoy, like Cruz, Dench, and Cotillard, who I thought was wonderful in her Oscar-winning turn in La Vie en rose, an the otherwise so-so biopic on Édith Piaf. I’m also really interested in the series of noir-inspired ads she’s doing with La Vie en rose director Olivier Dahan for Dior.
I haven’t seen this many women in an ensemble since I saw Cruz in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver (note: Cruz is also starring in Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces and I can’t wait for it to start playing in Austin).
As an aside, the gossip enthusiast in me is also curious about Cruz and Kidman starring in a movie together. Ever since Tom Cruise split with Nicole Kidman and dated Cruz, I always wonder what their interactions are like every time they show up on a magazine cover together. It’s a catty curiosity, but a curiosity nonetheless. I wonder how they would be portrayed in a movie about Tom Cruise’s life, but want very much for this movie not to be made.
Whether this movie is good or not remains to be seen. But I know I’ll rent it at some point. This has Sunday afternoon at-home viewing written all over it.
Attention holiday shoppers, ’80s nostalgists, and feminist music geeks! Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, and Cyndi Lauper went Barbie for Mattel’s Ladies of the ’80s collection. Apparently this was announced late last month, but I didn’t hear about it until checking Caryn Rose‘s Twitter feed last night.
So, as with most things, I’m a bit ambivalent about this collection. For one, it’s hard for me to imagine pre-pubescent playing with these dolls. Furthermore, with the collection’s bent toward ’80s nostalgia, there’s a good chance that girls today don’t know who these rockin’ ladies are (though I hope today’s parents are exposing their children to this music — I know many of the campers at GRCA this summer knew who Debbie, Joan, and Cyndi were when I taught the music history workshops with my friend Kristen).
I also take issue with how the women’s features have been homogenized to look more like Barbie. While this seems appropriate for Harry, as she has delicate features and was very slender during her days with Blondie, I’d appreciate it if Lauper was curvier and maintained her multi-colored mane. Jett’s costuming is fine, but I’d like her mullet to be more pronounced. Also, get the lady a leather jacket, please. And maybe the rest of The Runaways to reunite with her.
There’s also the issue of price. After a quick glance at Barbie’s Web site, it looks as though the average price for a doll is around $20. While hardly inexpensive for some folks, the retail value of the Ladies of the ’80s collection is $35 a rocker chick. Imagine how the price would go up if they decided to create and market ’80s-era girl bands, like The Go-Gos.
Let’s not overlook race either. It looks as though Mattel only considered white women when selecting the female pop stars that best defined the era. Where’s Janet Jackson or Tina Turner, to name but two examples? Also, I’d like an expansion of the collection to include male musical artists. How about starting with Michael Jackson and Prince?
And finally, there’s the issue of turning these women into dolls at all. Now, I was never much of a doll enthusiast as a girl. I understand that feminist and doll collector are not mutually exclusive identity markers (after all, “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy” is my favorite Simpsons episode). Still, it’s hard for me to see the collection and not think of how this group of punk-y women and their individual contributions to popular music challenged how women could look and sound in media culture are being normalized and exploited for corporate gains.
But, as Erica Rand points out in her wonderful book, Barbie’s Queer Accessories, the cultural limitations of the doll are defined by the collector, not the corporation.
Here’s hoping that some collectors use their imaginations to maximize these doll’s progressive or even transgressive potential. With any luck, the dolls will have formed a band, cured cancer, come out, gone bald, or dyed green in some homes by the end of the holiday season.