Tagged: Mad Men

Disidentifying with Boyhood

In her last scene at the midpoint of Mad Men’s final season, a teenaged Sally Draper looks expectantly at the night sky. It’s July 1969. Neil Armstrong is a national hero and she initiated her first kiss. As she takes a drag off her cigarette, her upturned gaze asks “what’s next?”

It’s thrilling to see Sally negotiate between what she wants and what’s expected of her. Earlier in the series’ run, her father’s ex-girlfriend defined this as people’s main conflict. Advertising promises to resolve it with the careful positioning of consumer goods. Adolescence is a process of fashioning your own identity out of what you inherit and what you create. In this sequence, we see what Sally learned from her mother (the blowout, the way she crosses her left arm when she exhales), her father (the squint, the ease with which she sneaks into the backyard), and her generation (the cynicism about the moon landing). We also see how she disidentifies with her status-oriented upbringing by kissing the nerdy son of a family friend instead of manipulating his jock older brother into pursuing her.

I thought about Sally Draper several times as I watched Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s lovely time-lapse family drama. That last image of Sally complements the film’s poster. Also, Sally Draper, Mason Jr., and the actors who play them mature in front of the camera. I’ve seen Kiernan Shipka age seven years, both within Mad Men’s version of 1960s New York and in the present. In three hours, I saw Ellar Coltrane evolve parallel to a new century from a taciturn six-year-old into an inquisitive college freshman.

I also reflected on how gender shapes one’s coming of age. Boyhood is about a kid negotiating between the kind of man he wants to be and the masculinity that’s expected of him. This is not the first time Richard Linklater has explored this subject. In an interview with Alex Pappademas, Linklater said that he wondered what kind of kid his star would become during production. No brainer; he’s a cool guy. He’s the kid who’d spend class time in a dark room. His name is Ellar Coltrane and he grew up in a Richard Linklater movie. Mason Jr.’s prototype is Dazed and Confused’s Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), a Central Texas kid who morphs from Little League pitcher to chill incoming freshman on May 28, 1976 with help from his big sister’s cool friends.

In “Making Dazed,” the behind-the-scenes featurette included in its Criterion release, there’s production footage of Parker Posey and Joey Lauren Adams discussing a scene they added to the film because their dialogue in the script just focused on boys and make-up. Linklater told the actresses to write a bull session for their characters, Darla and Simone. It’s a great little scene where Simone (Adams) talks about hanging out with the young daughter of her divorced mother’s new boyfriend. It was ultimately cut for time, along with another scene where a group of girls wonder about life after high school. Now when I watch the film, I wonder what the girls are doing while the boys are out cruising. They’re probably rotating joints and listening to Aerosmith too. Darla would ruin a mailbox.

Save for romance, sex segregation already governs Mitch’s social life. He barely interacts with Jodi (Michelle Burke), who occasionally checks in on her brother and observes that he’ll be able to get away with more rebellious behavior than she did. We see the nuances of this process occur in Boyhood as Mason’s older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) slides out of view, separated by bedrooms, gossip magazines, Lady Gaga, video games, social media, and finally college.

But Dazed and Confused treats masculinity as the default. While Boyhood is universal in many ways—or at least poignant for many adults, some of whom acquired sentimental fondness for queso and Central Texas’ craggy majesty and saw Austin change in real time—it explores what it means to grow up distinctly (Texan, white, modestly class-mobile, and) male. The “boy” of the film’s title is deliberate, and not just because Personhood would weird out studio executives. For Mason Jr., much of that masculine self-fashioning is a process of disidentification, which queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz (RIP) described as “strategies of resistance within the flux of discourse and power” (19). Though Muñoz defined disidentification as survival strategies for minority (and frequently intersectional) subjects, Mason’s struggles with hegemonic masculinity still resemble “a performative mode of tactical recognition” that disallow him to entirely conform to the representations of manhood presented to him (97).

Boyhood begins in 2002, when Mason Jr. is age six. He’s riding home from school with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who scolds him gently for not turning in all of his homework. At first, Mason’s lack of follow-through juxtaposes Samantha’s academic excellence. But eventually we meet his father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), a sorta musician and non-committal parent who picks up several years where Troy Dyer left off in 1994’s Reality Bites. This provides some early indication of paternal influence or of the toll the separation took on Mason in the first six years off-screen. Eventually, Mason’s dad stops chasing music and babes. He cuts his hair and sells insurance, even if he still writes songs and makes mixes for his son. But he never quite ages out of the shiftless romanticism and easy misogyny of his youth. It’s why Olivia cannot trust him. With time, his son sees him as a flawed, unreliable person and not a template. He’s not a Father; he’s just a dad.

Mason encounters a number of men whose example he observes but does not follow—authoritarians who want to bend his mother’s family to their will, short-haired teachers and bosses who want to “reach him,” homophobic peers, Bible-toting grandfathers. But the model of masculinity that Mason ultimately tries to distance himself from is the slacker philosopher his father presents to him. Obviously, this is a big challenge for Mason. He shares his father’s DNA and artistic tendencies. Muñoz argued that disidentification is “not always an adequate strategy of resistance” (5) because it “works on and against dominant ideology” (11). Usually, Mason’s strategy is silence, which may not be a legible form of resistance. But in two instances late in the film, he rebels against his father’s misogyny with silence. He uses it when his father and uncle throw Olivia under the bus in order to stress the importance of proper contraception while in college (because dudes gotta sow wild oats). He deploys it again as a defense when his father tries to be a bro by thoughtlessly maligning his son’s ex-girlfriend (aside: I remembered the actress as a guitarist in Schmillion when I was a volunteer at Girls Rock Camp Austin; leave Zoe Graham alone, DAD). These scenes are tough to watch, because Mason’s struggles to disidentify with his father’s model of masculinity are not entirely successful. He stutters. His defenses trail off. But in both scenes, Mason casts a downturned gaze. His smile tightens into a grimace. Nervous laughter sticks in his throat. He looks embarrassed.

These scenes follow an earlier moment in the film where Mason slips out of the house during junior high to drink and horse around with some classmates and two high school boys. The older guys use homophobia and misogyny to bully their young charges into chugging beer, committing dangerous stunts, and bragging about conquests they made up. Mason’s classmate Tony (Jordan Howard) is the only person who defends himself and doesn’t abuse a girl’s reputation to do so. In response to each utterance of “fag” and “pussy,” Tony calls the bullies pathetic for picking on younger kids and telling lies about girls to seem manlier. Mason is silent in this scene too, but his face suggests he wished he were brave enough to speak up.

Ultimately, Mason cannot entirely identify with the forms of masculinity presented to him because they exist at the expense of women’s dignity. Mason may have had a cool weekend dad, but he also grew up under the care of a tough, determined mom. As Wesley Morris observed in his review, Boyhood “is actually the story of a single mother who wants the best for her children but also for herself.” Olivia makes a lot of self-destructive decisions over the course of Boyhood, but she is also a self-sufficient woman who tries to learn from the past instead of make excuses for it. Twelve years later, I’d happily watch Arquette reprise her excellent work here and see what Olivia’s up to after the kids have left the nest. Mason’s father may have taught him how to shrug, but his mother taught him how to move forward. What’s next?

Collecting

In the first chapter to her book, The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed makes the following argument about the meanings that we put into the things we own:

If we arrive at objects with an expectation of how we will be affected by them, this affects how they affect us, even in the moment they fail to live up to our expectations. Happiness is an expectation of what follows, where the expectation differentiates between things, whether or not they exist as objects in the present (29).

This makes a lot of sense to me. Records are my happy object.

Objects accumulate meanings because of the associations and feelings we bring to them. On last week’s Mad Men, an engineer helps install an IBM 360 in the middle of SC&P and explains computers’ dark thrall to Don Draper: “It’s been my experience these machines can be a metaphor for whatever’s on people’s minds.” Conveniently, recent Mad Men episodes have been framed by promos for AMC’s new period drama, Halt and Catch Fire, which details the development of a fictional Texas-based computer company in the early 1980s. In the clip, a character states: “Computers aren’t the thing; they’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

Ahmed would love that sentence’s circularity. Also, you could replace “computers” with just about any other word and the sentiment would still hold. In Ahmed’s mind, the thing we’re trying to get to is happiness, which we never completely arrive at and often only recognize in retrospect. I was reading Ahmed’s book during Record Store Day, which my partner and I observe every year. As I thumbed through the crates, posted images of my findings, pored over the covers, filed away my vinyl, and threw on my newly purchased copy of the Life Without Buildings reissue, I thought about what expectations collectors put into records. Technologies are often thick with possibility. We may think that a new gadget or toy will be “it.” Instead, we frequently integrate some of their features into our daily lives (load it, check it, quick – rewrite it). We only notice their object-ness when they don’t work (buy it, use it, break it, fix it).

I’m literalizing Ahmed’s use of the word “object.” She uses the term to express how individuals orient themselves within culture. According to Ahmed, people can be objects as well. When they congregate, they often objectify one another. Ahmed argues that this results in children becoming distinctly burdened as symbols for hope. That could explain why the dinner table is a volatile place for some families. But we often symbolize people and risk turning them into our happy objects. It also explains why making a mix for someone always means more than putting a sequence of songs together. The mix is the thing that gets us to the thing.

There’s a curatorial function to record collecting, but it doesn’t mean anything without people. Building a collection implies a sense of discernment, which is learned from living in the world and absorbing social norms. This ascribes unequal value to objects, which we should always question. You may ask yourself if a piece of music “deserves” to be on vinyl and folded into your collection. You may also get rid of things because of unfortunate associations. How often do break-ups forever alter your relationship to music? How often is that association shame? “Happiness is an expectation of what follows,” indeed. Because of a boy, I started college with three Blink-182 albums in my CD collection (including the yellow version of Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, the one with “Fuck a Dog” on it). Other records—Björk’s Homogenic; PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea; The Dismemberment Plan’s Change—remind me of that time, but they made it to the other side and accumulated new meanings for me. But when I was ready to let it go, Dude Ranch didn’t even make it to a used record store. I flung it into a parking lot. Part of it was me being spiteful; it was a gift. Part of it was me applying feminism to music snobbery; I was done with pop-punk dick jokes. Part of it was me being a music snob; at 19, pop-punk was my bad object. A big part of it was shame; I didn’t like who I was when I was with him.

Sharing and combining record collections is an act of faith. What if you hate your partner’s records? What if you lose things? What if you end up having to divide everything back up into boxes and go your separate ways? I’ve merged my record collection with another’s exactly once. The ease with which we did it eight years ago was a good sign. We’ve schlepped our records to three homes and two states, but the process never bothered me. When I look at our records, I like being able to see what was him before me (The Aquabats), what was me before him (Depeche Mode), what we don’t share as a couple, what we brought to each other, and what became us.

You’ll never have enough records. There’s a beautiful sadness to that fact when you’re a collector. I’ll never hear all of the necessary sounds in the world and I’ll never have enough shelves to house them in one place and that is very comforting. Of course, technological progress has radically changed our perception of ownership and storage. Digitization has made just about anything available through both legal and illegal means and we can place that stuff in increasingly smaller, light-weight, and ephemeral spaces. Toward the end of a long, uncertain semester, I started to scan all of the paper I accumulated during course work and teaching. I did this to achieve a sense of control. I may not know what shape my dissertation will take or what its impact will be. But I imagine being happier and more at ease once the stacks on my desk and floor disappear. However, new stacks will probably spill over in their place. Happy objects are messy.

What I’m talking about is gathering. In Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed waxes poetic about tables and returns to them briefly in The Promise of Happiness. According to Ahmed, the table is a writing surface, a technology that bears the traces of its use, a gathering space, and an item that recedes into the background until certain interactions cause its presence to intensify (2006). Her meditation on tables reminds me of how scholars like David Morley, Lynn Spigel, and Ann Gray have theorized the television and the political significance of individuals and families’ interactions with it in the home. It also made me think about when Mary Kearney described television as something you need to dust during a class activity in her feminist television criticism graduate seminar. I never looked at another television set without thinking about dust, and I think about what else accumulates in my home full of objects. Records gather meaning in dust and in scuff marks. We put them there.

En/Joy

Several months ago, I received a text from a friend. Like much of my correspondence with her, I turned over this statement like a message in a bottle that washed up at my feet.

the only time I really understand jouissance is when I listen to pop.”

I liked this text for a few reasons. One, it came out of nowhere; I love when some idea or statement seizes a friend with such urgency that she or he has to share it. Two, she taps into what bugs people about this fizzy French word, which is its untranslatability. The word is a derivative of the French verb “jouir,” which roughly means “to enjoy,” and can be broadly applied. Following intellectual contributions from folks like French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, poststructuralists have argued that jouissance is such an intense feeling of joy that it forces the subject to split apart and dissolve with pleasure. This definition makes me think of the phrase “explode into colors,” which a once-promising Portland outfit claimed as a descriptor for its textured, makeshift sound. Three, she connects the word to pop music, which is where I have most frequently been in the presence of such joy. Finally, my attachments to women’s voices as a music fan make me think of Hélène Cixous’ claim that jouissance is a distinctly female experience.

Pop music is about as hard for me to define as jouissance. I’m guided here “purely” by my response to certain instances where female vocalists’ contributions gave me pleasure and what that pleasure might “mean.” For my purposes, I’ll draw upon a few examples of joyful moments in popular music, which will encompass rock, alternative, and R&B in this post. In different instances, it can also include commercial permutations of country, hip-hop, metal, and other musical genres.

In the season six episode, “A Tale of Two Cities,” Mad Men featured Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” as its end credit music. At its most basic level, the selection demonstrates how countercultural forms like psychedelic music, hippie fashion, and (the promise of) sexual revolution seeped into mainstream consciousness during the late 60s. Implicitly, it may also be gesturing toward advertising’s eventual reliance on music licensing over jingles and original compositions, a shift Timothy D. Taylor attributes to the industrial fervor over Boomer-era nostalgia, blockbuster soundtracks, and MTV. What struck me most about the song’s placement was to whom it was referring. “Two Cities” is primarily a place-setting episode designed to cap off a season with moments of profound darkness that were frequently diluted by scattershot storytelling (Pete particularly), underserved characters (Dawn especially), and an origin story for its protagonist’s bruised psychology that frequently relied upon caricature (Don, obviously).

In the context of the episode, “Piece” comments on Joan’s attempt at professional advancement and her tentative alliance with Peggy. Much of Joan’s storyline focuses on the aftermath of her fifth season arc, which culminated in a partnership at the agency that she acquired through prostitution and resulted in further subjugation because of her gender and management’s devaluing of administrative labor. Joan relies on subterfuge to acquire Avon as a client. With some considerable hesitation, Peggy becomes her ally and hopefully seeds a spin-off where the pair launch an agency and hire on Dr. Faye Miller to conduct their research.

I love that the cue suggests a relationship between Joan’s plight as a professional and Janis’ confrontational pleas of self-sacrifice. First, I would have thought that Janis’ scrappiness and unconventional beauty would more clearly resonate with Peggy (though really, she’s Carole King right down to the Brill Building pedigree). Second, Janis insists that she can prove that a woman’s femaleness is steel-girded. I can think of few figures who can withstand the harrowing cultural damage of women’s objectification better than Joan Holloway. Unfortunately, it’s conditioned her to ignore possible alliances, especially with other women. Joan uses fashion and professionalism as armor. In doing so, she projects to the world that she is confident and essential to the process. But because of the nature of her work and the terms of her partnership, only Peggy sees Joan’s strength. As a result, Joan has never been given entrée into the world of client lunches and social club networking because men like Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell view her as a sex object and not as an equal.

The unstudied recklessness of Joan’s professional daring in “Two Cities” mirrors the strain Joplin puts on her voice. Rock critic Ellen Willis argues that, as an interpreter of other people’s songs, Joplin “did not sing them so much as struggle with them, assault them” going on to add that the singer’s pursuit of pleasure was driven by “a refusal to admit of any limits that would not finally yield to the virtue of persistence—try just a little bit harder—and the magic of extremes” (2011, 128-129). This provides resistance to Joplin’s voice, that crack when she commands “C’mon, come on, Come! On!, COME ON and TAKE IT” thrilling in its defiance and its cathartic release. If this is jouissance—and it sounds like it to me—the pleasure I get from her voice and that she seems to have gotten from singing as an articulation act comes from having to wrestle against such restraint.

In their necessary theoretical work on happiness and the technological and cultural histories of the orgasm, Sara Ahmed and Annamarie Jagose draw upon work from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Michel Foucault to remind us that pleasure is intensified by pain and objectionable behavior. In thinking about how this influences jouissance, I recall Björk’s “Hyperballad.” It’s hard to pick one song that effectively demonstrates the concept in her repertoire. The woman recorded “Violently Happy,” which may be a synonym for jouissance. But I’ve always been struck by how such an anthemic dance track can be built from such private, contradictory emotional impulses. The song details a morning ritual. A lover wakes up each morning and walks right up to a mountain cliff, taking in the scenery and imagining herself in free fall before she returns to life with her partner, who’s still asleep at home. She wonders what it would be like to surrender to the rocks underneath her, and whether she would greet death with open or closed eyes. The video poignantly demonstrates jouissance through division by representing three versions of the singer—as mountain range, as video game avatar, as playback image—as layers that comprise the (fractured) whole. And I have often felt the full weight of this song on the dance floor, feeling my eyes well up with tears as she screams “to be safe up here with you” as I surrender to rhythm and confession’s relentless build-up to pleasure’s edge.

My favorite moment in Janet Jackson’s “When I Think Of You” is near the end when she breaks into a fit of laughter that compromises her singing quality. Her declaration that this love “feels so good” sounds as if her voice is trying to break free from poor breath control and strained vocal chords. As a result of her glee, she doesn’t give herself enough support to open up her throat and hit the note. Though I recognize its manufacture, this moment of the song sounds “genuine,” as though Jackson is so consumed by her own human joy that she must declare it, even if (and possibly because) this pleasure has left her breathless. But while I dance against the grain of Janis, Björk, and Janet’s voices, I don’t think jouissance is just about the resistances built into pleasure. Roland Barthes popularized the grain of the voice as a concept that could address the erotic materiality of the voice. But while grain is often audible in a singer’s vocal roughness, we cannot give undue emphasis to wailing, screeching, and moaning at the expense of articulations of pleasure with smoother textures. To understand Jackson’s vocal contributions to pop music, we have to understand instances where jouissance is not a site of friction but a moment where we gather together peaceably in its transformative release.

I love Jackson for many reasons. Foremost, I credit her for having as much to do with shaping my feminist politics by modeling a female sexuality defined by the erotics of consent, intimacy, and self-respect. In popular estimation, Madonna is credited with this shift in pop music’s sexual politics, but Jackson did as much in her work and also brought collectivism and black consciousness into her chosen idiom. But I also responded to the ease in her voice. Janet has a shy, small voice, and one that frequently radiates happiness. I often hear a smile when she sings, even in her more confessional or confrontational moments. Perhaps part of this happiness comes from her ability to connect singing and dancing as a circuit of performance rather than distinct professional activities. In her voice, and its signification of happiness, I hear something akin to what Ahmed identifies in the carefree protagonist of Mike Leigh’s film, Happy-Go-Lucky, that “freedom from care is also a freedom to care, to respond to the world, to what comes up, without defending oneself or one’s happiness against what comes up” (222).

I’ll close by offering some ways to challenge or add nuance to my consideration for how jouissance functions in pop music. First, I’d like to consider how pop music signifies jouissance in ways that do not privilege or overemphasize the erotic and take up other forms of pleasure. Second, I’d like to acknowledge that jouissance is not just registered in the voice but in its interplay. I was reminded of this recently when I saw Kelis perform “Breakfast” at NPR’s SXSW showcase last month and felt the full intensity of her joy as she sang and strutted amid her multi-part ensemble. Pleasure resides in the voice’s interaction with instrumentation, composition, and production aesthetics. It’s not just about the singer, but the singer’s voice as one interactive element in a larger compositional or performative space. Finally, jouissance is about listening as an embodied practice, which is how we are able to respond to pop music by singing along, dancing in and out of time, and wiping away tears, perhaps all at once.

Pop music can be part of a circuit for joy. Therefore, jouissance is about the promise of bodily and spiritual connection, however briefly. Ahmed identifies happiness as a series of moments that create texture and shared impressions, instances where we are “brought to life by the absurdity of being reminded of something, where a sideways glance can be enough to create a feeling that ripples through you” (219). Ultimately, Ahmed argues that these moments are ephemeral and are given undue burden as an ideal in a culture that occludes the transformative possibilities that “negative” feelings can allow us. To be happy is not an ideal but part of a spectrum of human existence. It’s fleeting and it’s a feeling we tend to recall (and distort) from memory. Pop music can transform a moment or take us back to it and let us bask in its afterglow or feel pleasure in its friction. It may deliver happiness in brief increments and through ephemeral means, but it can transform our relationship to the world. It’s a point in time that we can always discover or return to, often with as much ease as a needle finds its groove or a song finds its algorithm.

Katy Perry’s country heart

Critics are expected to make comparisons. The ability to recognize similarities between people, texts, and ideas is a skill expected of those who observe and write on culture. As music criticism continues to be transformed by post-structuralism, feminism, poptimism, and retromania, a number of writers are praised for articulating a profound connection that seems strained or completely unrelated upon first utterance. What does Taylor Swift have in common with Def Leppard, KISS, Eminem, and Nicki Minaj? Plenty, according to her. What would she have to talk about with Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino? Plenty, according to me.

Putting forth these kinds of arguments speaks to contemporary culture’s continued indebtedness to the merging of high and low art that resulted from modernism accidentally rubbing elbows with postmodernism on the train after a sojourn to Warhol’s factory and kind of liking it. It speaks to why my friend Jen hates that Roy Lichtenstein stole from comic books to legitimate panels and pixels for gallery dwellers. It also speaks to why so many Americans are thrilled to see themselves through Mad Men‘s eyes, even if they don’t agree on whether or not the show actually feels like the past.

Music critics love to forge connections between artists across genres. For one, it’s a way for us to show off our eclecticism. Jody Rosen making a comparison between Justin Bieber and Frankie Lymon demonstrates his knowledge of pop history. Me arguing that the Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” is a country song lets some folks know that I understand the group’s connection to Gene Vincent links them to proto-punk bands like Suicide as well as a larger songwriting tradition. It’s also a way for us to launch arguments with one another. But it’s also a way to challenge the definitions of what constitutes a genre by pretending the boundaries around it don’t exist. There’s privilege in trespassing and appropriating, of course. But there’s also the possibility of liberation, particularly from meaningless and oppressive words like “authenticity” and the segregated taste hierarchies they impose.

Paying attention to what songs musical acts decide to cover can be productive when we talk about hybridity, eclecticism, genre, and cultural assumptions. People still tend to be surprised by a cover by a “rock” artist interpreting a “pop” song outside of their genre–even American Idol judges who know Colton Dixon is just copying 30 Seconds to Mars’ take on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”. I was embarrassed when I visited Travis Morrison’s old Web site and listened to his spirited, acoustic version of Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy,” but I knew the Dismemberment Plan well enough to not be surprised by it. I actually prefer Stars’ lounge-y cover of the Smiths’ “This Charming Man” to the original.

When I originally encountered Lisa Robinson’s Vanity Fair cover story on Katy Perry, I rolled my eyes at her comparison between the singer and Dolly Parton. A small part of me was offended–I respect Dolly as a musician and regard Perry as a bad object. My initial response is telling, particularly in how I reverted back to objectification, binarism, and misogyny–feminists are never done unlearning. But I also thought the comparison was super-obvious. Both women became famous for their particular brands of winking hyperfemininity. …And?

Then I listened to Perry’s “The One That Got Away” while waiting in line at Subway one day and was mesmerized by it. What I found especially transfixing was that, if you dulled its electro sheen and slowed it down, I think you’d have a country song. My friend Sarah pointed out that you’d basically have a Taylor Swift song, which challenges my original position on both artists. Here’s what I think makes it feel like a country song.

. . . Actually, I’ll give you a moment to process the age makeup and Diego Luna first.

-The lyric about making out in a Mustang to Radiohead is at once a very specific reference to Perry’s former relationship yet holds universal appeal. It sets the tone for the entire song, which contains references to tattoos, Johnny Cash, and delinquent romance. A hallmark of country songwriting is incorporating minute character details that seem particular to the artist and to millions of listeners.

-The elegant, austere sadness of the song’s melody makes you drop a tear in your beer and gives you the forward momentum to get off your bar stool and sleep it off. The composition is at once simple, yet towering and opulent. It’s as if the song was plated with gold and girded with steel, an abstract description that sounds like a Parton lyric.

-Perry doesn’t have Linda Ronstadt’s vocal abilities. Few do. But the wounded quality to Perry’s voice makes me think of “Blue Bayou” and “You’re No Good”, particularly in the chorus. Listen to the twang she puts on “in another life” to deepen the song’s sense of urgency and romantic ache and her rueful, muted delivery on a lyric like “us against the world,” which is paired with a descending melodic line.

What I’m getting at here is country music is at once clearly defined and not one thing. So it makes sense that Perry performed this song last fall at the American Music Awards in a hot pink getup and matching guitar that looked like Jem landed at the Grand Ol’ Opry (BTW, I’d totally see Perry, Swift, Rihanna, and Jessie J play the Misfits in a live-action film adaptation of Jem and the Holograms). The genre’s defining characteristics are distinct, yet also malleable and permeable. That’s what makes listening to music so much fun, and thinking about it continuously rewarding.

Somewhere? Somewhat.

Sofia Coppola with cinematographer Harris Savides; image courtesy of guardian.co.uk

Sofia Coppola makes movies I almost love. I’m not sure if Coppola has one in her I’ll love outright. Yet I still think she has vision and am always excited when one of her features makes its theatrical rounds. Dutifully, I went with my friend Cassandra to see Somewhere the weekend it was finally released in Austin. The Virgin Suicides comes the closest to being a movie I love, though at least one friend argues that her adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel is misogynistic. Lost In Translation would be even closer to my favorite. I think Bill Murray is astounding and really appreciate the tenderness between the semi-platonic leads. However, while I recognize that language barriers are frustrating to all parties in that movie, I still think its baseless racial politics are going to age like Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 50 years. I think the first half of Marie Antoinette is her best work and has a fascinating soundtrack, but is hamstrung by Kirsten Dunst’s failure to convey emotional maturation.

Also, we simply don’t have a lot of accomplished female American filmmakers. Do I wish this were different? Of course I do. Do I think it’s my duty to seek out and comment on their work? Why do you think I put together the Bechdel Test Canon? Do I revere the work of Sofia Coppola? Reread the first two sentences of this post. Would she have an Oscar if she weren’t a Coppola? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean I begrudge her success. Because until I don’t have to outline the entire filmography of a female director who directed episodes for shows like The L Word, Sex and the City, Gilmore Girls, or Mad Men to stay in the game when someone asks “who’s Jamie Babbit?,” Coppola’s film career shouldn’t be disregarded out of hand. Regrettably or not, it’s exceptional.

I stress that Coppola’s vision doesn’t belong to her brother Roman or papa Francis. Like Stephanie Zacharek, I reject people’s assertions that she’s Veruca Salt or that men are responsible for her film career. If we want to mount the argument that Coppola is stealing from her father or Italian neorealism with Somewhere and has nothing original to offer, I’ll point out that cinematographer Harris Savides shot it. He also filmed Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. Both pictures were shot in Los Angeles by the same person and exist in the present yet look very different from one another.

I also think Coppola has something to say about growing up female. Yes, she’s addressing a particular kind of femininity. She is concerned with white, heterosexual women and girls gilded with privilege–except maybe the Lisbon girls, who are part of a single-income family supported by a school teacher’s salary. Sure, we have every reason to critique the construction of such limited representations. But I don’t necessarily have a problem with people writing and directing what they know. If Coppola adapted Winter’s Bone, completed a version of Tipping the Velvet that the rumor mill attached her a few years ago, or wrote a script about a girl who goes to a Los Angeles private school on scholarship, the same detractors would hate all of these hypothetical efforts. Also, her taciturn characters still possess contours, layers, and ambiguity. Her movies aren’t filled with great people. They don’t or can’t always say what they’re thinking or react in a heroic fashion. Sometimes they can’t react at all.

This might be really frustrating to some audience members and all the gilding might make it harder to relate. I recognize many of the criticisms Dan Kois, June Thomas, and Dana Stevens mounted against Somewhere in a recent installment of The Culture Gabfest. However, Thomas believes Somewhere will destroy American cinema. I think Wes Anderson’s twee influence ruined it first. Kois quotes from Richard Rushfield’s Daily Beast piece on the movie, stating that in films, a $500 silk shirt was once “evident shorthand for the participation of evil” but is now worn by the protagonist. I’d argue that this criticism obscures some of the shallow, regressive identity politics evident in the canonical texts of the French New Wave and the American Movie Renaissance.

Coppola with Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning; image courtesy of movieline.com

I’m also unconvinced that protagonist Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), an A-list action star whose daughter visits him while hiding out in the Chateau Marmont, is supposed to be  sympathetic. Though the movie doesn’t make this case, I read him to be a terrible person. My understanding of him is informed by a recent slog through Anthony Kiedis’ Scar Tissue, a numbing rock biography that overuses the word “soulful” and reads as a long list of beaches, clinics, drugs, and interchangeable women. Coppola appears in exactly one paragraph. She was involved with the Red Hot Chili Peppers front man long enough to watch them on Saturday Night Live. I’m not sure what to make of Coppola’s depiction of Marco’s bevy of unnamed women who constantly perform and wear embarrassing accessories like sailor hats to excite Marco’s libido. I’d chalk it up to misogyny, but Kiedis’ book suggests that some men–famous or otherwise–really are this shallow.

Coppola’s smart not to write Dorff as an obvious jerk. We can read his bad boy Gen X persona and the vase-throwing cameo in a Britney Spears video into his performance, but Dorff’s Marco is a nice guy. He’s affable and obedient with the press, his handlers, and the strange girls who are always in his room. He got the job simply because he’s a handsome guy who can fill out a tank top. This is subtextual in a brief exchange with a young actor looking for career advice–a scenario I could see Taylor Lautner in at the end of this decade. Yet the unintended moral of Scar Tissue is that the worst kind of bad boy celebrity feigns sensitivity but ultimately lacks the mental or emotional strength to keep good women in their families. To charm is not necessarily to beguile, but to beguile is ultimately to betray. Marco’s ex Layla learns that off-screen. I imagine their daughter Cleo (the remarkable Elle Fanning) did as well.

Yet, for all the bluster and contrarianism that set up this post, I still wasn’t enthralled with Somewhere. I’m fine with the space and silence and boredom of it. I love how editor Sarah Flack lets some scenes play out too long and bluntly abbreviates others. For a quiet movie from a director who uses music (and music supervisor Brian Reitzell) to convey meaning and demonstrate coolness, I appreciate their decision to play out pop songs through stationary cameras instead of employ music video editing. Marco is entertained by twin pole dancers (Kristina and Karissa Shannon) on two occasions. One routine involves candy striper uniforms and the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero.” The other is to Amerie’s “1 Thing” and employs tennis outfits to comic effect. The empty glamor and tedium of fame is best captured in the aural and visual components of these scenes. Yet this is a tired point, and I don’t know what Coppola has to say about celebrity.

Also, for a movie indebted to Italian neorealism, can I just point out that Cleo has entirely too many clothes to fit into her tiny suitcase? I think she wears one sweater twice. Doesn’t scan. Just sayin’, wardrobe department.

The ending to this movie vexes me as well. If I’m right to dislike Marco, the final scene confirms my feelings that he can’t grow as a person. If I’m meant to believe he’s capable of redemption, then Coppola made a mistake. She should have stranded him at the hotel after dropping Cleo off at summer camp. The movie “resolves” with Marco abandoning his luxury car on the side of the road. Sure, he’s walking away from the trappings of fame. But he’s also walking away from his responsibilities as a parent, failing to absorb the meaning of the time he shared with his daughter. Cleo, like Frances Bean, is largely left to raise herself. I bet both of them whip up a mean Eggs Benedict.

As a fan of Postcards From the Edge, I know I'd see a movie about Courtney and Frances; image courtesy of eonline.com

But I do think the movie offers up something interesting about the tenuous nature of father-daughter relationships. My favorite scene in the movie underlines it, and Zacharek interprets beautifully in her review. Marco watches Cleo rehearse a figure skating routine set to Gwen Stefani’s “Cool.” I conceptualize the selection as an oldie to Cleo. Perhaps it’s akin to Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet,” which was a staple at drill team recitals growing up. Though it’s another female performance Marco watches, the intended benefit is probably for the performer instead of the spectator. On the car ride back to the hotel, his daughter will inform him that she’s been taking lessons for three years. But in this moment, he witnesses her talent and realizes they don’t know one another very well. This scene killed me. I wish I could find it, but here’s the music video.

I cried in part because this year I approach my ten-year high school reunion and, with it, the anniversary of my estrangement from my father. As this scene played out on-screen, I thought about how, as a previous version of himself, he’d fly to Houston to see all my silly school musicals. For the most part, he was a good dad between marriages and was concerned to a fault over me becoming the best version of myself. Of my parents, dad was the movie-goer and made his living as a writer. At an early age, he got me excited about cinema and encouraged me to articulate my opinions about what I experienced, so he definitely would have accompanied me to Somewhere. As an only child to parents who tried really hard to create me, I take a perverse comfort in knowing that if things turned out differently between us he would have championed my writing as ardently as my mother does.

But more than that, I cried because this is ultimately a moment of acceptance between two people. Despite genetics and an easy way with one another crafted by the actors spending quality time together during rehearsal, they aren’t quite family. It’s a point made clear in song selection and masterfully executed by cast and crew. I think Coppola empathizes with all sides. Because Marco might have less to do with her father or brother or boyfriend and may be a manifestation of the director’s concerns about herself and the world her daughters will inherit. Somewhere is a meditation on the awkwardness in forging a parent-child relationship. Coppola doesn’t quite make something transcendent out of it, but she makes yet another beautiful picture that by turns floors and frustrates me.

Music Videos: Beyoncé plays dress-up

Beyoncé as B.B. Homemaker in the music video for "Why Don't You Love Me"; image courtesy of bellasugar.com

Followers of this blog probably know that I’m a fan of fellow Houstonian Beyoncé. To my mind, Slate music critic Jody Rosen is right to call the last decade in popular music the Beyoncés. In a recent column for Bitch, Sarah Jaffe trumpeted her praises and recalled Sara Stroo’s Bitch Tapes mix organized around songs about getting dressed, which included “Freakum Dress.” I’ve written a bit on her myself, most notably a response to Dayo Olopade’s piece in The Root about whether the pop star is the heir(ess) to Michael Jackson’s legacy.

All this Beyoncé chatter got me thinking about two music videos in particular. Though the (de)racialized dimensions of constructing gender performance define her work, these two clips are especially noteworthy.

The first is “Freakum Dress,” which takes its name from a slang term that refers to a tight, short number. A freakum dress is a companion to fuck-me pumps, though I think cheap material and guady design are purposely employed for effect and would note that this is yet another instance where B brings urban black vocabulary into the mainstream. I don’t like the message of the song, which advises women with roving-eyed male partners to objectify themselves to ensure fidelity. The two effeminate male attendants who dress B give me pause as well, as they obviously abide by the stereotype of the gay man as his female friends’ accessory and mediator for heterosexual courtship. But I think the racial and ethnic diversity and costuming on this one is interesting, particularly when B dons professorial bifocals at the end. Plus her lipgloss applicator lights up, which is pretty rad.       


“Freakum Dress”
B’Day
Directed by Ray Kay and Beyoncé

Then we have “Why Don’t You Love Me?” which I think is one of the more interesting videos I’ve seen in recent memory. Around the time of its release, I remember my friend Kristen at Dear Black Woman, made a characteristically astute observation I hope she elaborates on at some point. She commented on how B is ingratiating herself into the iconography of the post-war era white housewife, a role traditionally off limits to black women in media representations. To put it reductively, she’s Betty Draper instead of Carla. I get some Kenneth Anger in there as well, though perhaps without the gay misogyny film critic Pauline Kael accuses him and his peers of in an essay collected in I Lost It at the Movies. 

Mad Men's Carla, swallowing the indignation she must feel from the stupid shit her WASP employer and friends say about racial politics; image courtesy of telephonoscope.com


“Why Don’t You Love Me?”
I Am . . . Sasha Fierce: Platinum Edition
Directed by Melina Matsoukas

Why I wanted to see Sally Draper go to Shea Stadium

Sally and Don Draper; image courtesy of lippsisters.com

For those who saw Mad Men‘s “Hands and Knees” earlier this week, you know a lot of plot was rolled out. For those who follow Mad Men (and its forbearer, The Sopranos), with three episodes remaining in the current season it’s around the time the show moves from glacially paced meditations on characters and their stations in life to seismic shifts in culture and the characters’ twining personal and professional lives, which usually get met with little reaction at all. I concur with Slate‘s Michael Agger on the clumsy way in which plot moved forward in “Hands and Knees,” which he thought was best illustrated by the not-too-subtle crack on the head a character received from his father’s cane, leaving him in a state the episode title refers to.

But if the show is also about characters evading difficult decisions by refusing to act, which Salon‘s Heather Havrilesky observed in her episode recap and is a central theme the show shares with The Sopranos, it is also about shifting viewers’ expectations by deliberately occluding them from witnessing events that other shows would foreground. We don’t see Joan, Roger, or Betty’s weddings. We don’t see Paul register Southern black voters. We get the most limited interactions with the people of color who exist, if at all, on the borders of the main characters purview, most of whom could probably tell us a great deal about the people who ignore them. We may never see Sal again, even if the termination of a major account at SCDP may allow for his return. The most we tend to get is the aftermath, with the characters either denying the heft of their realities or not noticing them at all. To take it back to Havrilesky’s point, if very little actually happens on Mad Men, it is because the characters refuse to let it. Thus the events that would traditionally be of interest to viewers get sidelined, slipping away from the characters’ minds.

This can be a really frustrating way to assemble a televisual narrative, and I certainly understand if it’s off-putting to some. Kristen at Dear Black Woman, wrote a provocative essay for Antenna about the show’s strategic marginalization of black people wherein much of her pleasure in reception seems to derive from an as-yet-unfulfilled hope that people of color will gradually ingratiate. Speaking for myself, the limits of withholding people, information, and events from viewers took a toll on me as a fan this season. This is primarily because the central narrative arc is about Don Draper floundering as an ad man, divorcé, friend, and father, illustrated by self-destructive actions that I think will curry sympathy and ultimately favor, which I don’t think he deserves.

Draper’s attempt to get back in daughter Sally’s good graces with tickets to the Beatles’ historical Shea Stadium concert following a harrowing unplanned take your daughter to work day in “The Beautiful Girls” is another case in point. Though the threat that Draper won’t score the tickets after promising Sally looms over much of the episode, it’s peripheral to concerns that the Defense Department might cotton to Draper stealing the life of a commanding officer during his service in Korea to hoist himself out of his bleak personal and professional prospects. Of course, Draper does follow through and maintain his reputation as a fun weekend dad. He’s also aligned with the Beatles at the end of the episode by staring at his comely secretary to the strains of an instrumental version of “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” somewhat stealing his daughter’s emotional thunder. 

What Sally took part in on August 15, 1965 at Shea Stadium; image courtesy of nydailynews.com

The subplot is worth it alone to see Sally’s unbridaled excitement over the news, but I would’ve liked to see her at the concert. As yet, I only have actress Kiernan Shipka’s thoughts on the Beatles. Naturally, as it’s a big cultural event that could reveal much about the impacted character, it’s obscured. But thinking about Sally’s excitement alongside the peer female Beatles fans Barbara Ehrenreich identifies with in Re-Making Love: The Feminization of Sex or even Robert Zemeckis’ terrible I Wanna Hold Your Hand, I’m curious how the Beatles and the nascent significance of Boomer youth culture and shifting gender, sexual, and race politics will serve as a catalyst for Sally. This is also why, in addition to getting a guitar for her birthday, I’m still waiting for a meaningful exchange between Sally and Peggy Olson, who is working through similar negotiations–sometimes misguided–of the restrictions placed on her gender and age. I hope I get it, and I hope I see the aftereffects of the show on Sally that are more psychically resonant than a case of laryngitis.