If I had to pick one rock band to invite over for dinner, it’d be the B-52’s without question. I’d even drink sweet tea if it was spiked. They formed after getting drunk in a Chinese restaurant, so I know good things can happen with them while they’re eating. Maybe they’d bring over the plastic fruit Keith Haring gifted them. I hope Kate Pierson brings her girlfriend too.
I love the B-52’s without any trace of irony. I requested a cassette copy of Cosmic Thing for my tenth birthday because I saw Stephanie Tanner do a dance routine to “Love Shack” on Full House and heard the Mickey Mouse Club cover “Roam” and was sold, only to find that “Dry County” was my favorite track on the album.
What actually endeared the B-52’s to me was the video to “Love Shack,” which looked like the most fun shoot ever–way more fun than Sinéad O’Connor’s devastating “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The club in that video was what I wanted the parties in Dirty Dancing to be, though as an adult, I’ve come to love it, appreciate its distinctly Jewish purview, and recognize its feminist potential. But no one was risking back-alley abortions after getting knocked up by slumming waiters at the Love Shack, perhaps because of all the same-sex hook-ups going on.
I didn’t recognize it as such at the time but, with RuPaul in tow, “Love Shack” one of the queerest clips I’d seen at that age. Along with the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Freddie Mercury, and family friends Ken and Dennis, the B-52’s were a big part of my LGBT sensitivity training growing up. Later, I found out that Cosmic Thing was released after an extended hiatus. It was their first record after guitarist Ricky Wilson died of AIDS. Frankly, I still marvel that Cindy was able to record after losing her brother so tragically. Perhaps taking cues from kindred spirit Pee-Wee Herman, the B-52’s recognized children’s need for queer visibility and ingratiated themselves into kids’ programming, with members providing the theme song to Rocko’s Modern Life and the group coming together as the BC-52’s for The Flintstones. Actually, I’ll count Rosie O’Donnell as part of my education too. Even though she wasn’t out yet, she pinged my ‘dar big time.
I’m thinking about queer visibility and alliance because Wisconsin Capitol Pride is going on this weekend. But the B-52’s expanded my mind in other ways. Of their peers, Devo and the Talking Heads get branded as the eggheads. I’m not disputing that they made esoteric pop music that legitimized “graduate student” as a cool vocation. But the brains behind Blondie and the B-52’s are often discredited because they made fun records and trafficked in thrift-store kitsch. Yet, as the documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out makes clear, the B-52’s avant-garde pop was just as intellectually rigorous as R.E.M.’s mumblecore and at home with Pylon and the Bar-B-Que Killers. And David Byrne identified with the B-52’s enough to produce Mesopotamia. Maybe they’re dismissed because Fred Schneider professes cultural ignorance on “Mesopotamia” by stating “I ain’t no student of ancient culture–before I talk, I should read a book!” Frankly, I wish more people were that honest. I’m sure a lot of people can’t abide the group because Schneider’s defiantly gay vocal mannerisms trigger latent homophobia. That or “Rock Lobster.”
I’ve always loved “Rock Lobster”–so much so that a college friend gave me a 45 copy for Christmas one year. I’m not alone, either. Apparently Haring used to paint to it for hours, to the ire of his flat mate and neighbors. But it’s terrible for karaoke because it’s seven minutes long and most people can’t commit to Schneider’s campy narration and the ladies’ Ono-esque sea creature noises. That’s why I suggested Karaoke Underground replace “Rock Lobster” with “52 Girls,” because drunk people enjoy screaming people’s names and pointing to their friends.
Somewhere I read that the B-52’s’ read on paper like an American Studies thesis but sounded like a dance party. That’s pretty right on. Like artist Kenny Scharf and filmmaker John Waters, the group was obsessed with queering retro futurism and Cold War Americana. Their name references the bomber that streamlined modern warfare and the bee-hive hairdos preferred by teenyboppers and girl groups. During the Reagan Administration, the threat of Soviet revolution and nuclear fallout held relevance. The easy solution was to retreat to a time when xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia (all synonyms for “paranoia”) seethed under shiny, vinyl surfaces. Folks like the B-52’s thought this was a punchline with horrifying ramifications, and responded by regressing. I almost wrote on this for my Cold War Media Culture class but wrote about West Side Story instead for some reason. When Ruth La Ferla’s considered the economic ramifications of retro-futurism’s escapist pleasures for the New York Times, I kicked myself.
For me, it’s easy to pore over any B-52’s album cover. What are they wearing? Where can I find those wigs? But the one that captured my imagination was Whammy! Though obviously on a set, the composition of William Wegman’s shot suggests that the group is in an abyss, staring above at an uncertain future. Vikki Warren’s costuming is amazing. Kate and Cindy’s outfits are vivid bursts of red and yellow against the men’s black-and-white ensembles. I especially love the silhouette of Kate’s dress, bringing to mind Judy Jetson and the hula hoop. Released a year before Reagan was re-elected and thus fulfilled an Orwellian prophesy, Whammy! was the group’s most forward-looking record to date. As a result, it was underappreciated. But songs like “Legal Tender,” “Song for a Future Generation,” and a cover version of Yoko Ono’s “Don’t Worry” (later replaced by “Moon 83” for legal reasons) were and remain relevant.
When I originally started thinking about artists who might expand the definition of what a diva is, the first person who came to mind was the subject of this post. Who else but a diva could be seen in concert halls and magazines as well as museum exhibits, obscure sitcoms, and cultish b-movies? Campy, profane, versed in popular culture, obsessed with the fragmented nature of female personae, and tailed by a devoted audience, Magnuson definitely seems to meet the requirements of being diva.
Like Wynne Greenwood (aka Tracy + the Plastics), Magnuson made a name for herself through the available art scene, specifically by managing Club 57 in the East Village during the early 1980s. At the time, Club 57 — which originally claimed its residence in a church basement — was a burgeoning scene comprised of folks like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, the B-52s, Klaus Nomi, and Fab Five Freddy. Magnuson and her patrons were obsessed with the radioactive kitsch of their Cold War-era adolescence and she would often arrange theme nights like day-glo erotic art show and Elvis Presley hootenannies or turn the venue into a putt-putt golf or a tiki lounge. During this time, she also became a part of Pulsallama, a percussion-based girl group that Magnuson thought of as an anti-band rebelling against the “fashionable primitivism” Malcolm McLaren was espousing with Bow Wow Wow, who he was managing (re: manipulating) at the time. Magnuson had left the group by the time they made “The Devil Lives in My Husband’s Body,” but you can get a good sense of what they were about by listening to this.
A key trait for any diva to me seems to be the ability to inhabit various roles, sometimes in opposition to one another, through performance. Folks might be quick to offer up a better-known pop icons like Madonna, Christina Aguilera, and Beyoncé, but let’s not forget Magnuson who often differed from these women by using her chameleon-like ability to create characters that poked fun at female stereotypes, materialism, confessionalism, and the hollowness of fame. Pairing up with Tom Rubnitz, she put together “Made for Television” in 1981 for PBS’s Alive From Off Center. The 15-minute piece, which simulates late-night channel surfing, features believeable send-ups of televangelism, soap operas, and game shows with Magnuson playing all the parts. Particularly with regard to how hollow and alienating our collective fixation of fame can be, it reminds me of Eileen Maxson’s “Lost Broadcasts,” which depicts the artist as a reality show hopeful whose staggeringly candid audition tape is being fast-forwarded and talked over by a disinterested casting agent fielding a phone call.
I cannot locate “Made For Television” online, but I have seen it in exhibition. If you hear about it coming to your town, I suggest you see it. If you find it on the Interwebz, share with the group.
In the mid-1980s, Magnuson got together with Mark Kramer to form Bongwater, a band where this kind of performance was all too common.
Ever the actress, she would off-set duties with Bongwater with turns in the ABC Jamie Lee Curtis/Richard Lewis sitcom Anything But Love, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, and The Hunger as well as Susan Seidelman’s beloved Desperately Seeking Susan and Making Mr. Right (which totally looks like a movie I should see).
In 1995, Magnuson released her first solo album, The Luv Show, which was apparently inspired by the mad-cap narratives, sex-crazed vixens, and pop-art shine of Russ Meyer movies. It certainly explains the cover, though no explanation needs to be given for songs like “Miss Pussy Pants.”
While Magnuson was never going to be a mainstream talent, it’s heartening to know that our media culture had room for a smart, cheeky lady all too willing to represent in the margins. Actually, they still seem to have the room for her, as Magnuson released her second solo album Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories in 2006, embarks on cabaret tours, and does occasional film work. More importantly, Magnuson seems all too willing to deconstruct the very idea of the diva, who she is, who she pretends to be, who she represents, and where her markers of identity blur and splinter. She might be Cindy Sherman‘s kind of diva. She’s definitely my kind of diva.