Note: Today’s post on Mad Men absolutely contains spoilers. In order to set up the particular scene that will take focus, I had to contextualize other key developments in a character’s life at this point in the series. If you’re not there yet, perhaps you’ll get to it. Keep this post in mind when you do.
Two musical moments for women in as many weeks? Oh, Mad Men. You are the gift that keeps on giving. Last week, I wrote about a scene involving Peggy Olson. Today, I will consider a key scene for office manager Joan Holloway (note: as she married Dr. Greg Harris, she’s now Joan Harris; however, I will refer to her as “Holloway”). And both involve music! Delightful.
Last Sunday, at her husband’s urging, Holloway broke out an accordian and sang “C’est Magnifique” from Cole Porter’s Can-Can to entertain guests for a dinner party they were holding at home. This scene is in sharp juxtaposition with Holloway’s current situation which, as with everything in Mad Men, is hardly magnificent.
That this scene happens at a dinner party is crucial. Older than Olson by a few years, Holloway is in her early 30s and potentially informed by what Noel Murray might call hostess feminism, where wives define themselves as masters of the art of entertaining — cooking, entertainment, hospitality, charming conversation — in order to impress the work associates of their professional, commanding husbands. If we recall from season two, Holloway is transfixed by Jacqueline Kennedy giving a televised tour of the White House. Her preoccupation with being the great and immaculately turned-out woman behind the great man may also speak to her status as the office sex symbol and why she seems the most shaken when Marilyn Monroe dies.
Hostess feminism seems the most applicable term for Holloway in last week’s episode, wherein she holds a dinner party for her husband’s boss. In our current iteration of feminism (or, ugh, post-feminism), some may argue that playing hostess has been reclaimed as progressive, being fluent in Emily Post as a formidable skill-set, and women throw homefront soirées because they want to, not because society has ordained that they be relegated to the domestic. I get this logic, but don’t think it’s that simple here.
Of course, women opting out of the workforce to be wives and mothers is not inherently bad. Feminism is about choice (though, it must also be noted, opting out of the workforce is also about means). Mothers are key players in our society, in that they keep the species alive and, if they do a good job, contribute kind, well-adjusted, and productive people.
It just seems that being a wife and mother wouldn’t be fulfilling to a professional woman like Holloway. Even when conforming to traditional office gender politics, it’s always under the guise of professional decorum (witness how she handles the humiliating run-in with nemesis Jane, Don Draper’s twentysomething former assistant and the new Mrs. Roger Sterling, who Holloway counts as an ex). She clearly possesses more institutional knowledge of Sterling Cooper than almost anyone. We even got an all-too-brief sense for Joan’s knack for television advertising in a season two episode, a knack the boys unfortunately overlooked. They couldn’t get past the cheesecake to see the burgeoning mad woman.
So, Joan’s decision to throw all of her interests into the domestic — strongly implied by her “maturing” age and that may be running out of time — is a little disconcerting, as she herself seems to realize. It doesn’t seem like she wants this life so much as she’s internalized that this is what’s she’s supposed to want. It’s what’s expected — and if you ever need a dark mirror image of how unfulfilling these roles can be to the women who occupy but don’t connect with them, look no further than Mrs. Mommy’s Time Out herself, Betty Draper.
An additional layer to Joan’s domestic unrest is with whom she’s chosen to make her life. Her husband, a doctor at St. Luke’s, has proven himself to be far from the great man any woman can stand behind. Last season, we witnessed him raping his intended in Don Draper’s office — an act of violence he probably dismisses as kinky rough play. In this ugly moment, we see Joan’s eye glaze over the legs of a chair as she’s ground further and further into the floor. It doesn’t get much lower on the corporate rung for this office manager than this. In addition to his brutish behavior, he may have scarce professional resources, as indicated by a botched operation he kept from his wife mentioned in passing by one of his colleagues that may result in him getting passed over her residency. In short, this horrible guy she committed her life to might be more of an albatross than she anticipated.
Which brings us to her impromptu performance of “C’est Magnifique.” Though coming from a musical written by an American, after having read Kelley Conway’s piece on the chanteuse réaliste and Phil Powrie’s piece on the role the accordian has played in French cinema in cultivating a national identity, it’s hard for me not to look for links between Holloway’s and Fréhel’s sexualized, economically marginal position. The big difference, however, is in delivery. Where Fréhel celebrates being raunchy, Holloway’s performance is professional, efficient, and unflappable.
It’s also what might be called pointedly empty. Part of this can be attributed to Holloway’s disembodied vocal performance. While it sounds like the voice pushing through actress Christina Hendricks’s mouth is her own, she is also clearly dubbed, her vocal take recorded in some unseen studio some time ago. Thus, there’s a clear break between singer and actor, even if the speaking voice and singing voice seem to match up.
This disembodiedness has an edge to it. Holloway recognizes the cruel irony of the seemingly lovely-dovey lyrics. She may also see a bit of herself in La Môme Pistache, Can-Can‘s protagonist. Both women now just how tragic love can be when it turns out to be a lie. My hope is that the character who is working through these issues on AMC this season is proactive in trying to find a viable solution. I’d hate for her to become as hollow as her maiden name implies.
Today in The Root, Dayo Olopade posited that the pop star set to inherit Michael Jackson’s mantle as the King of Pop is Beyoncé Knowles. And my girl Kristen (who of course pointed me to the article in the first place) asked for people’s thoughts on this assertion. Here now is my effort.
Obviously, no opinion can be reached without mention of how important Michael Jackson was to people. While I can be snide and agree with others that he hadn’t made a good album since 1987’s Bad, I also won’t pretend to know how deep an impact he made on generations of African Americans and what it was like to see a young black man launch into that kind of mythology. Even if you’re Chuck D and you made the point that having MTV air the music video for “Billie Jean” in 1983 nearly 20 years after Jackson broke into the mainstream as part of The Jackson 5 was an achievement for white America (a point Chuck makes in The History of Rock and Roll) I don’t know if you can qualify how particularly and specifically important Michael Jackson is to generations of African Americans. And Beyoncé was born in 1981. Indeed, she didn’t exist before Michael. So I definitely think his impact on her — along with several other African American pop stars — is monumental and different from their white counterparts. Thus, I’m absolutely fine with Cord Jefferson’s assertion that Justin Timberlake cannot inherit Jackson’s legacy. Let Beyoncé wear the damn military jacket.
Yet, while I feel that the Beyoncé as successor story is really compelling in theory, I wonder if it works. As many people have argued, including Olopade, we may have witnessed, with the death of Michael Jackson, the end of superstardom. And while others might disagree, I think this is a good thing, as I feel that a life lived in quotes, italics, and all caps only ends up ruining the body and mind living the persona(e). It may be captivating, or even aspirational to the general public, but it also seems hollow, empty, lonely, and unfulling to the person. It also seems too taxing to keep up. Listen to Jackson’s songs, as his lyrics became increasingly paranoid. Look at Neverland. Look at the increasingly desperate music videos that could never replicate the magic of “Thriller.” Witness the body in a constant state of mutation, decay, whitening, and plasticity. As Michael aged, the man in the mirror must have become more alien to himself. Absenting a larger discussion about looming rumors of child molestation and a confirmed history of child abuse and exhausting work conditions administered by his father, Joe, I cannot help but view what happened to Michael as a perilous lesson at how cruel and unfulfilling that level of fame is. The high price is assuredly the self.
To me, if we want to go with a model for how Michael’s fame warped any semblance of a personal life and informed his music, the more accurate analog is Britney Spears, a young woman formed into a hologram for our society’s distorted desires, started rebelling and making commentary on her fame, who we watched collapse, villified and mocked for making poor decisions, took offense to the havoc the stress of fame and vanity wreaked on her body, and whose untimely death will assuredly be met by a dumbfounded mass. She may live past 27, but I’m not sure that her attempts at normalcy and privacy won’t be as ill-informed and unfortunate as Jackson’s were.
Beyoncé, on the other hand, seems to carve out an autonomous private life for herself as best she can. To that end, I actually think she has more in common with Michael’s sister, Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty. While both have suffered speculation and public battles with body image and weight fluctuation, I also think they were aware of their popularity, reticent to embrace it as a result of their shyness and self-possession, and made an effort to keep some of themselves to themselves. Beyoncé may collaborate with her husband Jay-Z, but they rarely disclose any personal information beyond the occasional outing to a Knicks’ or a Nets’ game or reference to their relationship in song (I seem to remember the mid-2000s being a hard time for the power couple to balance love with work — they seem to have made it to the other side without us knowing too much about their private goings-on).
Likewise, Jackson has taken privacy to perhaps necessary extremes, hiding her entire marriage to René Elizondo from the public until she announced their divorce in 1999. She’s since been in a long-term relationship with rapper-mogul Jermaine Dupri which may or may not culminate in marriage. I kind of like that I don’t know. Maybe it’s the Protestant in me, but I’m not as interested in their personal lives as I am with their work. Of course, how one informs the other is tremendously useful and important to me. But I like that both women have given themselves the space not to have the factoids of their love lives be common knowledge.
These women’s effort to separate the public from private life is reflected in their music. While Olopade states that Beyoncé asserts the confidence that Michael lacked, I don’t think you have to look any further than Janet to find similarities. Thus, I think that while Michael’s influence as a pop star is not to be ignored, neither can his sister’s. As assuredly as Michael’s innovative music, kinetic movements, and larger-than-life persona inspired Beyoncé, I get the feeling that Janet’s no-nonsense, pro-woman, and at times politically charged anthems left quite an impression as well.
Another point I’d like to challenge is the idea that Michael Jackson was born a monolithic pop star and was the first of his kind. He evolved into a pop star over time. To that end, he also modeled himself on other pop stars, icons, and musicians. As Madonna did with Mae West and Marilyn Monroe, as Tina Turner did with Mick Jagger, and as many after them will continue to do, Michael modeled himself after pop stars of his time. Obviously, Motown, the birthplace of his career, left quite an impression on him. Diana Ross, specifically, became his mentor and model for how to be a pop star. While some catty folks may argue that Michael took the admiration too far, in effect trying to turn himself into her, “whitening” his features and taking on her soft voice, I don’t think we can discuss how assimilable Michael Jackson or Diana Ross (or Motown in the 1960s) was without getting into a larger discussion about the control predominantly white people in positions of power in the culture industries have in enforcing what supposedly white perceptions of what popular music should look and sound like.
Beyoncé has had to face similar instances of institutional racism and assimiliation. She often bleaches and straightens her hair, has witnessed multiple magazines Photoshop inches off her curves, and has shed pounds for movie roles. Beyoncé is also clearly inspired by Ross. Her first group, Destiny’s Child, were clear heiresses to The Supremes’ girl-group legacy. Similar to Ross, Beyoncé broke out on her own, becoming a definitive diva for her era. And adding another layer, Beyoncé played Ross’s avatar in Dreamgirls (for which she lost a considerable amount of weight).
We could then argue, via the Jackson-inspired dance break in the music video for Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylious,” that Beyoncé is placing herself in a continuum between Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.
Like Michael and Ross, Beyoncé has worked in movies. And while some people may want to scoff at her film career, I think the range and variety of Beyoncé’s filmography is interesting and helps open up what a pop star can do. She’s been in summer blockbusters like Austin Powers in Goldmember. She’s been in campy, racially charged suspense thrillers like Obsessed (which I haven’t seen, but dear God I hope she cuts that white girl). She’s also been in Dreamgirls and Cadillac Records, playing either fictionalized or real female musicians. (Note: She got to put on weight when she played Etta James in Cadillac Records, a movie I’m sorry to have missed in the theaters but expect a later post about it — gotta support African American female directors like Darnell Martin). But she isn’t only playing the singer.
Beyoncé’s foray into acting, coupled with her recent stint as The Gloved One 2.0 (aka Sasha Fierce) also speaks to her ability to self-fragment, using this tactic to showcase multiple, often contradictory versions of the female self. Which I think speaks to her feminist camp potential as well. Her music videos are sexy and provocative, but always with a wink, always tongue-in-cheek, whether she’s referencing Basic Instinct, riding a mechanical bull, rolling a hula hoop, or channeling Robert Palmer.
But while it might suggest a commonality with Madonna (one of the few pop stars to rival Michael Jackson’s stardom in the 1980s), I think Beyoncé’s campiness is singular. Principally, she channels her camp through humor. She’s really funny. Not a lot of pop stars get to be (or allow themselves to be) truly funny. A song like “Irreplaceble” stings with so much camp wit, and there are many others (the woman has her own vocabulary and phraseology). And, ever the shrewd businesswoman, she can use any song to its full synergistic potential. The guy in “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” is holding her tighter than her Deréon jeans, after all.
So, while it’s important to think about Michael Jackson and Beyoncé, I see their cultural relationship less as an issue of successorship than as an instance of continuum and evolution. Because while I’m stoked that Beyoncé is on par with Michael Jackson and am excited about watching her career evolve, I think of it as her career. In time, I hope that we think of this shy Houstonian playing the brazen pop goddess for all the world not as the next anything. Rather, I think of her in dialogue with the past, looking to pop history as a means of defining Beyoncé.
So, Beth Ditto is a style icon. No two ways about it. If you know this, then you probably also know that Beth Ditto just launched a clothing line for Evans in the UK. You may have already read SparkleBliss’s rad, insightful post about it on her blog (which, if you haven’t, you should — go here). And, if you follow SparkleBliss on Twitter, you may already know that she just bought herself a cute outfit from the collection.
Now, women in music dabbling in fashion is nothing new. Indeed, women in popular culture writ large dabbling in fashion is almost de rigueur — another way to circulate your brand, add more hyphenates after your name, and give your fan base more tactile, tangible access to “you”. Everyone seems to be have at least attempted at designing a clothing line (Gwen Stefani, Victoria Beckham, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Lopez, Eve, Kate Moss, Rachel Bilson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Chloë Sevigny, an assortment of women on The Hills . . .) or work as a spokesmodel (M.I.A. for Marc Jacobs most immediately comes to mind).
But you’ll notice that a lot of the women I mentioned are presumably straight and all of them slender. Thus, the majority of female celebrity clothing lines align with normative identities of what women and girls should be. This indeed makes Ditto’s entrance into the world of fashion and retail (which she intimated in Bust as “dancing with the devil”) “a queer, fat cultural moment” as Charlotte Cooper at Obesity Timebomb purports it to be (and that SparkleBliss reprinted and linked in her post — seriously, go read it). It’s too bad that Margaret Cho’s High Class Cho line didn’t take off (complete with non-numerical sizes named for bombshells like Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe) — if so, we could add “woman of color” to the list of signifiers.
Also, looking at Ditto’s body and orientation is important when contextualizing her within pop music’s landscape. Slender pop stars like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga are also interested in fashion and with putting together their own clothing lines, but while Perry and Gaga flirt with queerness, Ditto is out. And while Perry’s look most clearly aligns with vintage, pin-up Hollywood glamor (albeit to a heightened, campy degree) and Gaga’s look is definitely severe couture (perhaps even a bit fascistic in ways reminiscent of Siouxsie Sioux, but let’s give this issue its own entry), Ditto’s collection is at once hip, wearable, distinctively Ditto, and specifically for plus-sized women and girls, perhaps more closely aligning Ditto with her fan base than Perry or Gaga could.
But we’d be doing a disservice to sing the praises of Ditto’s collection without (as SparkleBliss and Obesity Timebomb point out) a) acknowledging the inherent adherence to capitalism and b) being conscious of the (often cheap, exploitative) modes of production and labor responsible for putting this collection out into the market along with potential class issues and limitations among various consumer groups. Even the ways in which the unnatural, weird, non-human look of the mannequins wearing her clothes suggest we have a ways to go as a culture before a large female body becomes a natural body.
Alongside this, we can’t extol the virtues of Ditto’s collection without acknowledging that Ditto launched her line in the UK, where she is actually popular, instead of in the United States, where she’s slightly less than obscure.
I still feel like there’s something really important in having a space in the market for full-figured women and girls to have a cool clothing made explicitly for them, just like I thought it was rad for there to be Tracy Turnblad dolls to coincide with the release of the remake of Hairspray. Of course, I can’t exalt these instances without acknowledging the ickiness of capital, using niche groups supposedly under the guise of serving them while in actuality creating greater gains for the corporations and retail chains that create and disseminate the brand, and clogging our homes with stuff . . .
Yet, I do think these cultural moments are not to be overlooked, even if these moments are dependent on consumerism. It’s important for women and girls to have access to clothes that include them in the world of fashion that look good and make them feel good. Likewise, it is important that queer women and girls (perhaps more pointedly femme women and girls) have a spokeswoman creating an inclusive space for them in popular culture. Because there’s a lot of joy to be had in finding an item that was made for you.
So, I’ll just come right out and say it. I don’t get Lady Gaga. Actually, no. I think I get her. At first I thought I was just being resentful that she got to perform in the Pet Shop Boys medley at the BRIT Awards and I didn’t, but now I just think there’s nothing to get. To take Gertrude Stein out of context, there is no there there.
My immediate problem with her is that she seems to have garnered a lot of attention around her fashion choices. Admittedly, she’s got an interesting look on the surface. Glittery, glam, vaguely militaristic, often without pants. She certainly throws together a spectacle. But my big question is where is the commentary? What is the critique exactly?
Based on the video for “Beautiful Dirty Rich” (or, indeed, the title of her debut album, The Fame) one might assume the commentary is on the desperation and boring vapidity of fame and wealth.
But, the thing is, she’s totally buying into it, perhaps in the same way that her idol Andy Warhol bought into it. There’s not really a commentary. She wants to be famous. She wants to be rich (a goal not difficult to obtain unto itself, as she was born into an upper-middle-class family). Basically, it seems like she wants to be Paris Hilton. And not to comment on her. Just simply to be her.
To add to which, the glamor of Lady Gaga further seems to enforce the idea of fabulousness as being politically progressive. That if women own their fabulousness and earn it for themselves, it’s their choice to spend their money on jewel-encrusted, shoulder-padded bathing suits and designer sunglasses, and creating room for that kind of excessive materialism is empowering to women, somehow.
But you don’t see Lady Gaga appropriating thrift-store togs or found objects, as my friend Kristen astutely pointed out. Her key accessory of late seems to be the tea cup. This, combined with her taking up of the title “Lady”, suggests that there’s no reason for women to question high fashion’s or society’s dependence on capitalism (which also has a nasty habit of keeping patriarchal practices in power and, as a result, oppressing marginalized groups) but, in fact, to embrace it.
And let’s look closer at this image for a moment. Another thing that I think is interesting about her look is her predilection for appropriating East Asian (specifically Japanese, it would seem) fashion cues. This kind of pilfering further emphasizes her whiteness and her compliance with it — while she may have been born brunette Stefani Germanotta, she reinvented herself as Lady Gaga, a white, bleach-blonde pop star with an ear for pseudo-Aryan techno dirges and a desire to make herself as racially normative as possible. And how better to be white than appropriate from other cultures? This is evident in the picture above, where Gaga’s lips are made up in a pursed style popularized by the geisha, and in the look below, where she has manipulated her (wigged?) hair into a Hello Kitty bow.
Of course, many may defend her constructedness as being progressive because of how performative and excessively feminine it is, suggesting that it’s all drag and thus may be totally queer and subversive. Which is a fair claim to make. What was her American Idol performance of “Poker Face” if not one big, campy drag revue?
But a look to the lyrics. Apparently the song is about how Lady Gaga was having sex with a guy and pretending he was a woman. Shock me shock me. But you know what, Lady? Rather than suffer through some lame guy’s inability to satisfy you, why don’t you get out of bed and find another partner. Also, I’d be more impressed if you actually had a substantial male member, but you probably don’t. So the illusion is broken there.
And, of course, it cannot be ignored that the popularity of drag was another bit of appropriation white pop stars exacted from black, queer subculture. Maybe putting it on the Idol stage is interesting, but I’m sure much of its context and subtext was lost.
If all of this sounds super-familiar, it’s because it’s also not new. Having just read Pamela Robertson’s Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp From Mae West to Madonna, this basically reads to me as Madonna Redux. And let’s not forget that Madonna herself borrowed from Marilyn Monroe and Mae West, and was big on appropriating images and customs from black and gay culture, which bell hooks suggests in her essay “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister” further highlighted her white blondeness, as well as her compliance with patriarchy.
And while I’m all for feminist camp and female drag queens, I’d like to see some models of it (perhaps, gasp, some models of color) who actually make a comment on patriarchy, capitalism, race, sexuality, and normative feminine beauty ideals. If this critique isn’t there, then what keeps folks like Lady Gaga, who may seem progressive, subversive, or even transgressive, from actually endorsing a very staid set of class, gender, racial, and sexual norms and charging it all to their credit cards?