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.
Last fall, I saw my former thesis adviser, Mary Kearney, give an excellent presentation on sparkle, girlhood, and post-feminist luminosities. In The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture, and Social Change, Angela McRobbie identifies luminosities as spotlight effects of power that bring young women forward as individualized subjects. While luminosity promises to make young women legible cultural subjects, this visibility often becomes a form of surveillance. Kearney takes up sparkle as a form of luminosity that is simultaneously glamorous and vexingly ephemeral for girls and young women. Toward the end of her talk, she argued that scholars should consider what queer theory—and queer political actors like drag queens and glitter bombers—can teach us about sparkle. At the bar afterwards, I asked her what glitter can teach us about throwing shade.
As a Drag Race fan, I’m familiar with throwing shade as a vital historical practice within drag culture. To throw shade is to insult someone. For especially quick, observant queens, it’s an art form. There’s an intellectual component to throwing shade, as indicated by associative terms like “reading.” It is effectively summarized in a segment of Jennie Livingston’s essential 1989 documentary Paris Is Burning, which investigates the New York drag ball scene.
Dorian Corey’s comment at the end of this scene suggests that reading is more overtly performative and communal, whereas shade is a subtle, more ephemeral form of subterfuge. Shade complements luminosity. For female celebrities, luminosity is a double-edged sword. What’s the difference between a red carpet appearance and a mug shot? But drag queens frequently harness the light sources found in cosmetics, sequins, and rhinestones to honor feminine strength and often to challenge conventional femininity. They help cast sparkle in a different light. They sparkle to deflect shade. But when a queen shines, she may also become vulnerable to another queen’s shadow, particularly if her light source is basic or counterfeit. Glitter reflects light and the dirt underneath it.
This is where reading comes in as a “fundamental” practice in drag culture. To be insulted is to be recognized. As a perennial mini-challenge on Drag Race, “the library” is a space that honors queens’ ability to be critical of her sisters in a quick, perceptively humorous fashion. Particularly effective queens, like season two contestant Jujubee, can “read for filth” by isolating a queen’s flaws or weaknesses and critiquing them in devastating fashion.
The current cast of Drag Race includes frontrunner Bianca Del Rio, an insult comic with a classic Hollywood aesthetic. In an early workroom appearance, she refers to her punchlines and put-downs as her “Rolodex of hate.” What I especially like about this phrase is how it turns anger into an index. This phrase suggests that emotions have histories with their own root causes and stories. It also turns this particular negative emotion into a technology, a tool that can be used to navigate a variety of social interactions.
A “Rolodex of hate” sounds like a “structure of feeling,” a concept popularized by cultural theorist Raymond Williams to express how certain cultural experiences are understood through representation and felt in everyday life. But a Rolodex is a reference system that allows its user to refer back to pre-existing connections and associations. In this context, “Rolodex of hate” reminds me of what Heather Love refers to as “feeling backward,” or a distinctly queer experience or representation that speaks to subjects’ negotiations of negative or ambivalent feelings like nostalgia, resentment, self-loathing, shame, and despair. It also raises a question: what is knowledge’s relationship to anger?
This is the question that I have for the video to Zebra Katz’s “Ima Read.” I work for a university, so I was immediately struck by the clip’s location. First off, an empty school will always look like the setting to a horror movie. This is why you will never find me at a library after 7 p.m. But schools are already scary because they’re sites of learning. As a result, they enforce ideologies of knowledge. School is a source of power. That’s where I learned how to diagram sentences and solve equations. It’s also where I learned dominant historical narratives, literary canons, bad words, and political values that I would later challenge and undo … by staying in school. At school, teachers and students also learn how to communicate and socialize with their peers and each other. Such congregation can be difficult for subjects who are persecuted and endangered because of their differences and their inability (or unwillingness) to adhere to norms that are toxic in their restrictiveness. It can also be disorienting, particularly since students and teachers’ actions are subject to scrutiny but its source or intent is not always clear.
Apart from the video’s setting, I’m struck by Zebra Katz and Njena Red Foxxx’s lyrics. I’ve written elsewhere about the politics of negative reinforcement, using Azealia Banks’ “212” as an example. The rappers’ extensive use of the word “bitch” cannot be ignored, though we should recognize that the word has different meanings when it is activated by a woman or a queer man. But I’m also interested in its interplay with “college,” “knowledge,” “dissertation,” “classroom,” “outline,” “cohesive,” “lunchtime,” “first period,” and “thesis.” Schools circulate ideologies through discipline. We tend to associate “discipline” with official codes of conduct that sanction certain behavior and academic practices. Discipline also circulates through less formal means. Subjects are also disciplined by schoolyard fights, incriminating gossip, and withering glances. But sometimes, anger is coded through refinement. In a graduate seminar, you might say “I find the author’s argument problematic” or “I hear what you’re saying, but I quibble with you about …” Such niceties allow you to make your point, even if you’d rather yell and throw things instead. That tension is what I find most compelling about “Ima Read”; Katz and Foxxx appropriate scholarly decorum to use it as a weapon instead of as a euphemism.
I try to lead a simple, fulfilling life; anger is a part of that. Yoko Ono begins “Revelations” with the line “Bless you for your anger, it’s a sign of rising energy.” As a feminist, I am often furious about actions and events—however subtle, however seismic—where people and various -isms ingratiate themselves into cultural representations and everyday life in order to oppress and maintain the dominant order. Sometimes I just cry. This is why I’ve never understood how weeping is denigrated as feminine. I reject such binaries and how they devalue women and femininity by denying their connections to “masculine” emotions like anger. And crying is never a dainty, submissive act for me; it destroys my face. But depending on the circumstances, I also respond with confrontation, with inquiry, with silence. As Ono’s lyrics suggest, such energy has multiple potential outcomes. Anger is productive. It transforms. But what can we do with these energies? How can we use it to teach and what can anger teach us?
It’s really been over two months since my last post? Wow, time flies on the other side of the semester. After SXSW, I went to a conference and then it was Spring Break and now, well I’ve posted my students’ grades and gotten my own and Memorial Day weekend (along with WisCon and Christeene’s album release party) is just around the corner.
A lot has happened in those two months, hasn’t it? We keep losing great musicians (First Etta, then Whitney! Levon! MCA! Duck! Donna! Chuck!). Dan Harmon lost his job. We’re edging toward a recall election here in Harmon’s home state, which means I’m seeing a lot of Scott Walker’s hairy forearms in ads where he lies about job creation (vote against him June 5th). Kanye made a movie. So did my friend Brea. A few friends had kids–two of them made a set of twins together. Some friends came to visit. Annie Petersen wrote a piece for the latest issue of Bitch. I completed the first year of my PhD program.
I’d like to once again thank the people who came out to Get Off the Internet during SXSW and supported us financially or emotionally (often, it was both). As I was but one player and often not the engine driving the train, I’d also like to thank Tisha Sparks, Jax Keating, and Lynn Casper, who I would work with again in a heartbeat. I’d next like to acknowledge why I got off the Internet. This was a busy semester for me. We hired a new faculty member to our program. We brought in five new students for the fall. And we are sending off four graduates.
I also took a cultural theory seminar, a seminar on feminist research methods, and a seminar on director Agnès Varda. The first two were really tough classes and I wanted to make sure I was present enough in my studies to do justice to the reading material and the seminar papers I produced. The third course, as my friend Mary put it, was dessert. Varda’s a damn treasure. After each screening I was so full and giddy from feasting my eyes and brain on this filmmaker’s dizzyingly brilliant work that I often needed to savor the moment, which usually meant talking for hours with Mary. I also pitched a book proposal, which may or may not get picked up.
It also promises to be a busy summer for me. I’m working on a book chapter for an anthology and revising a term paper for publication. I’m also serving as acting co-editor for Antenna–my program’s media studies blog–for the next three months. I’m going to be an instructor for the first session of Girls Rock Camp Madison. I’m doing preliminary research on two projects I’m planning to turn into term papers (and then articles, because that’s how the game works). I’m going to Console-ing Passions to talk about Zooey Deschanel anti-fandom. I’m grading for some cash during the summer, and (like my partner) vying for some temp work as well. Hopefully I can score a little freelance money too. I’m prepping the class I TA next fall (goodbye, Intro to Public Speaking! hello, Intro to Television!). I’m going to spend some quality time at the Center for Film and Theater Research, because it’s ridiculous that I haven’t gone over there at any point this school year. I’m plant-sitting for my girl Sarah and I hope nothing dies. There’s other stuff I want to keep on the low for the moment. And I’ll be watching Girls because y’all, we need to talk about Girls.
I might also get some coffee with a former student because I’m that kind of instructor. You know, the kind you can call by her first name. And today I’m making a cat cake with Mary for the Varda seminar’s end-of-the-semester party. Well, and for Zgougou obviously.
But I miss writing. I miss being in the conversation. I miss sweating over a sentence in my pajamas. I miss the immediacy of having my fingers fly over an opinion. I miss you. I miss this part of me. So my plan is to adopt a MWF posting schedule. I have a back log of stuff to write about–those pieces on Before Sunrise and Chavela Vargas I promised, as well as Norah Jones and Faye Wong’s film work with Wong Kar-Wai, Girl 6, seeing YACHT and EMA in concert, and stuff I don’t know I want to write about right now.
I’ll say one more thing about this blog’s future. I’m taking a digital production course this fall. I’m not sure what all of this will entail, exactly. Since I try to go into at least once class a semester without a paper topic in mind, I find the uncertainty rather thrilling. But part of the point of this class is to get graduate students comfortable with TAing a new course on the subject that we’re offering in Comm Arts for undergrads. I’m absolutely taking this class so that I can TA the intro class later. For one, I think media scholars should have a handle on production.
For another, as a feminist media scholar I’m invested in closing the gender gap in university production programs and I think this is the next logical step. I fully take to heart Mary Celeste Kearney’s charge to melt the celluloid ceiling (y’all–she presented a paper on this at SCMS and went on a rant about this later at the conference #stillmymentor #whoiwanttobewhenigrowup). But one of the objectives of this course, as I understand it, is to have us work on media projects. All of my work in that class will go toward this blog, most likely toward developing a podcast series that I’ll launch in earnest after I finish course work the following spring. So keep that on your radar.
Finally, I thought I’d close with some stuff I’m listening to–at least when I’m not listening to Rihanna‘s Talk That Talk or the new Beach House record (sidebar: this thoughtful Pitchfork review once again proves that 2012 is critic Lindsay Zoladz’s year). Though I abstained from blogging, I never took off my headphones. Also, Sarah said she was looking for some summer music. So let’s kick out the jams.
That Grimes record is good y’all. It’s, to use music critics’ parlance, a grower. Her other records are good too and this song is not my favorite on Visions (it’s “Be A Body”). But I like that this video was shot at McGill (Canada reprezent), that the album art recalls a Routledge book that’s been masterfully defaced by a bored college student (Claire Boucher knows her audience), that this song–stripped away of its electronic affectations–basically sounds like something Roy Orbison would write, and that we get some naked, riled-up, male, sports spectator booty in the video. I hope you kill it at Pitchfork, Claire.
Santigold’s Master of My Make-Believe is an early contender for Album Art of the Year. So good. Like Annie Lennox before her, Santi White masters the art of passing as both male and female, and occupying the slippery space within the binary. I wonder how different the video for “Disparate Youth” is from Duran Duran’s “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” and if it’s because–to extend the comparison–Santigold is Simon LeBon-ny enough to wear floral prints with stripes while not using the shoot as an excuse for sex tourism. Then I watch it again.
Is THEESatisfaction’s “QueenS” video of the year? I think so. Party of the year? Without rival. Music journalist and personal heroine dream hampton directed the clip and I just love it. I smell the incense, I love the outfits, I’m humbled by the level of self-possession and skill with home decor. I also love their bell hooksian way with capitalization. awE naturalE is one of my favorite records of the year. So mellow, so subtly sexy, even more subtly complex, and so self-assured. This is music for brainy, grown-ass people. If you’re ever wondering what I listen for in a record, I listen for music by women and girls who know who they are and are open to share it with you; guitars optional.
As a culture of pop music engineers, the Swedes know their way around a groove so well that this song once again convinces me that we should buck the career Republicans and demand socialized health care. Charli XCX wrote this song and it would fit in Robyn’s canon, but it has its own snarl that I can’t get enough of. Bottom line: I’ve jogged to Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and I’ve toasted Lindsay Zoladz’s freelanciversary to it as well. It gets results. It’s that good.
Staying on the Reynolds piece for just a bit more, I wanted to give the nod to Maria Minerva because she’s got an album called Cabaret Cixous, she’s completing a masters in art and theory at Goldsmiths, and because if you really want to refine a search for music you think I’d like, focus on women who play electronic instruments. Just as I believe that the rural United States has a special relationship to punk, so too do I think that working with synthesizers and sequencers can be an inherently punk gesture. If you only need to know how to play three chords on your guitar to have a band, you often need even fewer faculties to play electronic instruments. When David Bowie began working with Brian Eno, they’d amass a bunch of keyboards for the studio and throw out the manuals because they didn’t want to know how to “properly” operate them.
Following my friend Ricky’s example, I’m a champion of the Shondes. Power pop should, above all else, hold sorrow and triumph closely in each hand yet not so tightly that both emotions slip through your fingers. Based on their music alone, this Brooklyn-based quartet has a profound sense of empathy. I recently caught them at a show in Madison, wherein bassist-lead singer Louisa Solomon made the following observations: 1. as you wrap up your 20s, more people you love die (preach, girl) and 2. as “Give Me What You’ve Got” intimates, women can be mean to each other. She offered both of these observations as inquiry, which is why I love her and this special band.
K.Flay gets my-my dark moments better than everyone and nobody can hellllp. Also, off-trademark Muppets.
If you follow Rookie, then you know those grrrls are spearheading this Scottish goth-pop outfit’s comeback. And just in time for tube top weather (help me embroider an upside-down cross on mine, Rookie staff).
And if you want to know what I’m cooking in my kitchen, that’s none of your business unless I invite you over for dinner. But Little Dragon is usually the soundtrack to time spent stirring the pasta, sauteing the onion, and sprinkling the white pepper.
Summer is ready when you are, y’all.
I was at lovely SUNY Cortland over the weekend, co-chairing a panel with Kristen about Girls Rock Camp. We met some awesome scholars/activists from fourteen different countries, shook hands with enthusiastic coordinator Caroline Kaltefleiter, heard some great papers and talks on a variety of subjects, made contacts with several GRC organizers (including our roommate, who runs Girls Rock Denver and is working on her PhD in Communication Studies at Michigan), did an interview with a PhD student at OSU, and have lists of things we need to read. Here are just a few things I learned.
1. There’s a world of difference between youth organizing and organizing youth. We should strive for the former. This is a difficult process, but listening is of the utmost importance. Thinking of girls as agents of change is another.
2. My former thesis adviser Mary Kearney was present, as was keynote speaker Sharon Mazzarella. Kearney participated in the plenary and presented new research on how to fix the dropout rate amongst female production students. She managed to ask at least one transformative question in each panel we both attended. She also made several smart comments in the plenary, calling out the normalization of students’ upper-class backgrounds in the academy and hoping that the field of girls studies never achieves total legitimacy in the academy so that groundbreaking work can continue to happen outside the top-tier schools and across disciplines. Mazzarella stressed the strength of girls’ studies emphasis on an interdisciplinary approach as well. I want to be these women when I grow up.
3. Marilee Salvator’s “Moo Goes the Cow” was featured at the “Girl” exhibit that coincided with the conference. It was a series of embroidery loops with silk-screened images of anatomical diagrams of genitalia, needlepoint, cartoons, and menstrual blood serving as a commentary of recalling repressed memories of child abuse. It blew my mind.
5. Brock University’s Shauna Pomerantz and Rebecca Raby presented work they’ve done on nerdy girls, bridging representations with ethnographies. I’m interested in how this work will evolve, and hope they continue to challenge the racial dimension of female nerds, speak to girls who fit the profile of the nerd but don’t always make straight As, and address nerdy girls who engage in delinquent behavior.
6. The wave metaphor alienates many feminists and womanists of color, many of whom were excluded from its formations. White feminists should move away from using it. Also, speaking for myself, it’s always seemed like a problematic construct that doesn’t speak much to me as a feminist.
7. Regrettably, I could not attend Sunday’s film screening, which featured girl-made projects that came out of a workshop Kearney co-facilitated with Cortland’s Cynthia Sarver. I wish I had, though, as we should always include actual girls in girls’ studies conferences. We regret being unable to get girls to speak at our panel. We put out a call on the GRC listserv, but imagine that financial and parental concerns speak to their absence. As always, something to work on.
My master’s thesis adviser recently informed me that Tara Rodgers (Analog Tara to you) wrote a book on female electronic artists called Pink Noises that Duke University Press is releasing early next year. Oh, how I can’t wait! If you can’t either, Rodgers’ promotional Web site might tide you over.
News of this book/site couldn’t come at a better time for me, as I’m currently working on short essays surveying American female composers and deejays for another project. Rodgers reprints some of her interviews on the site, and I’d encourage readers to look at her correspondence with electronic musicians and composers like Ikue Mori (former drummer of DNA), Anne La Berge, and Pauline Oliveros, as well as poem producer Antye Greie, who grew up in East Germany.
However, I thought I’d specifically hail the deejay today. And while the distinctions between electronic composer and musician can get blurry for the deejay (who I think technically is both), I thought I’d focus on them. I’m also doing it in honor of Lady Kier, former singer of Deee-Lite, who has since been made a career for herself deejaying all over the world. She’s revamped her Web site, and I’m just waiting for her to start posting her sets on Lickerish Radio like she used to.
And just to make myself clearer, I’m specifically highlighting club deejays and not on-air personalities, though I obviously have a lot of love for them as well. I will be folding hip hop deejays into the term “club deejay” here, which admittedly is kinda sloppy and reductionist. What I’m stressing here, in addition to the importance of women mastering technology for musical purposes, is liveness and performance in a dance space. Still with me? Okay.
So, in honor of Rodgers’s upcoming book and her subjects’ contributions to popular music, I’m spotlight some female steel wheel riders, whose interviews with Rodgers can be accessed by clicking on their names. Make sure you watch the videos too!
BTW, fuck Craig Kilborn. Remember how smug and not funny he was? I’m so glad Jon Stewart and Craig Ferguson have replaced him.
Beth Coleman (M. Singe)
Thank you, ladies! I look forward to reading your conversations with one another next year. In the mean time, I’ve got some crate-digging to do.
Wait, some of you might be thinking. Who is Robin Tunney?
I think Tunney was slated to be a star when she started cropping up in movies in the 1990s. While stardom didn’t happen for her, she’s had steady work, currently starring on The Mentalist, a CBS procedural. She was supposed to co-write a book on feminism with her friend Liz Phair, with whom she worked on the movie Cherish. I’m still waiting for that last one.
For many in my age group, we know her from back-to-back appearances in Empire Records and The Craft. As both movies were slumber party staples in my friend group, featured teen girl characters, and were accompanied by popular soundtracks, I knew I’d need to revisit them.
Empire Records came out in 1995 and developed a bit of a cult following, despite poor reviews and a dismal box office performance. It also instilled a personal desire to work at a record store, particularly an indie fighting to stay that way. At 13, it looked so cool and fun to “work” all day at such a place with hip teens and twentysomethings.
Well, maybe not them specifically, as the characters in Empire Records aren’t believeable as people so much as underwritten Generation X versions of cool kids dreamt up by a team of movie executives: there’s Joe, the anti-establishment boomer-era owner (Anthony LaPaglia); Lucas, the Zen-like hipster (Rory Cochrane); A.J., the sensitive artist in love with the unattainable Corey (Johnny Whitworth); Corey, the wholesome speed freak perfectionist (Liv Tyler); Gina, Corey’s slutty best friend who wants to be in a band (Renée Zellweger); Mark, the stoner (Ethan Embry); Berko, the rocker who clocks in between gigs (Coyote Shivers, who was married to Tyler’s legendary mother Bebe Buell at the time); and Debra, the rebel girl accountant who shaves her head after attempting suicide (Tunney).
The writing is the movie’s biggest problem, though I’ll never understand why casting directors thought someone as boring as Tyler would ever be a huge star (I’d ask this question again later in the decade when Katie Holmes started landing movie roles). The motivations of the characters, though meant to be read as young and madcap, are childish and inconsistent. The boys pine after girls, eat pizza, get high, and glue quarters to the floor. The girls pine after has-been teen idols doing in-stores, alternate between loving and hating each other, and get together with the boys who pine after them. Both sexes deliver such profound lines like “If I can love her in that skirt, than this must really be it” and “I went to rock and roll heaven, and I wasn’t on the guest list.”
That second line is the answer given to a question about bandaged wrists. It’s delivered to withering effect by Debra, potentially the movie’s most interesting character. She’s not glamourous like her female co-workers or sophomoric like her male colleagues. She also seems to have gone through real pain, deeper than the surface angst used to promote OK Soda and perhaps closer to the actual pain brought on by parental neglect and low self-esteem. In the early 1990s, these and other issues were particularly relevant to young girls, some of whom would form or discover riot grrl and queercore and develop their own queer and/or feminist identities. We only get a sense of Debra’s absent mother, resistent intellect, boredom with men, feelings of inadequacy, and the hope for something better.
Note: I’d recommend watching director Allan Moyle’s far-superior Times Square. Rest assured that the tale of two girl runaways falling in love amidst downtown New York’s early-80s squalor will get its due on this blog.
It’s weird that slashed wrists bridge Tunney’s two major performances to date. Clearly suicide, perhaps most unfortunately personified by Kurt Cobain, was on young people’s minds at the time. I’d hedge that this has more to do with class frustration, racial injustice, conflicted feelings about sexual orientation, coming out to unsupportive families and communities, dysfunctional home lives, and a lack of any real support system. I’d also add that it’s an on-going problem.
Absent mothers also connect Debra and Sarah, the latter of whom lost her mother during childbirth. As The Craft was originally pitched as “Carrie meets Clueless,” it seems necessary to point out that these movies feature girls with compromised mother-daughter relationships. Carrie’s mother is a crazed witch. Cher Horowitz, like so many other fairytale heroines before her, lost her mother at an early age and has only an idealized memory of her. Sarah has similar baggage, along with the additional burden of being responsible for her mother’s death. Oh, and carrying on the ability to perform witchcraft. That’s a hell of a lot for any teenage girl to shoulder, especially when she’s moving to Los Angeles with her family.
A heartening aspect of The Craft , no doubt motivated by how successful Clueless was, is the presence of girlfriends. Sarah meets shy Bonnie (played by Neve Campbell) and becomes friends with a trio of Goth girls. Two other movies came out in 1996 that focused on girl gangs — Girls Town and Foxfire. For a more nuanced analysis of these two movies and their depictions of homosociality and developing feminist politics, I highly recommend checking out my friend Kristen’s thesis Revenge, Girl Style.
The Craft entertains the progressive potential of girl friendship, particularly for outcasts. There are also hints at the queer possibilities of homosocial bonding and witchcraft. It even contains racially charged moments, particularly when Rochelle (played by Rachel True), the coven’s lone African American member, casts a spell on Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor), a popular blonde who is on the swim team with her. After enduring Lizzie’s racist comments about her hair, Rochelle turns her bald, thus rebelling against normative, white-centric notions of feminine beauty.
But these suggestions are sidelined. Because what the movie is really about is the battle between Tunney’s kind-hearted Sarah and Fairuza Balk’s destructive ringleader Nancy, who is jealous of her frenemy’s natural aptitude for witchcraft. It should also be noted that Nancy is working-class and coded as queer. The movie makes a considerable effort to undo her queerness, putting men in between her and Sarah, whether they be ex-boyfriends or Manon, the supernatural male figure that the girls worship. The movie ends with Nancy trying to kill Sarah, resulting in a showdown that tears the group apart, causes Sarah to move, and leads to Nancy being institutionalized. The final shot is of Nancy in a straight-jacket trying to fly out of a padded cell. The movie’s message: we are the weirdos, mister. Just don’t expect us to stay friends or keep a hold of our sanity. So much for sisterhood.
Sisterhood is often lacking in movies, but is emphasized to market teen movies, if only to tap in to the girl market. But much of this was eclipsed in story development to make way for more lucrative prospects, none more pronounced at the time than the soundtrack. A considerable number of American teen movies in the 1990s featured a soundtrack, many boasting songs by alternative rock artists. Unlike The Craft and Empire Records, and more in line with All Over Me, Girls Town and Foxfire paid particular attention toward showcasing female artists, particularly those closely associated with hip hop and the then-waning riot grrrl movement. Scholars like Jeff Smith and Mary Celeste Kearney have addressed this in their work, theorizing that the soundtrack served as a way to cultivate potential audience markets and a source of textual identification for fans.
While female artists are present on the soundtracks to Empire Records and The Craft, they’re not the focus, perhaps out of fear of alienating a broader audience. This might further explain why The Craft soundtrack features covers of popular songs from lesser-known acts. Our Lady Peace contributes a version of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Heather Nova covers Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch,” and Letters To Cleo take on The Cars’ “Dangerous Type,” a tactic they’d repeat when covering Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” for 10 Things I Hate About You at the end of the decade. And let’s not forget the double-nostalgia of former Psychelic Furs’ front man Richard Butler covering The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” with his post-Furs project Love Spit Love.
A major problem both of these movies share, and is evident in other titles of this period and in the Brat Pack movies of the 1980s, is the need to broadly define its characters as members of a generation, rather than as complex young people with particular problems oftentimes informed by their identities. And while ennui and an ironic fluency in popular culture were markers for Gen X, these young adults were more than just sneering (white) kids in flannel, combat boots, and barettes. At least off-camera.
Oftentimes, they were frustrated by how little high school and a liberal arts education could get them in a job market, particularly during the late 1980s and early 1990s when the economy had yet to recover from the 1987 market crash. They were annoyed at the shrine their parents built to the 1960s, as it was clear just how empty and hollow their promises of revolution were. In some ways, they were no different than people my age or boomer hipster Paul Kinsey on Mad Men, turning to interesting records, movies, books, and TV shows, but knowing they wouldn’t make them any happier, politically mobile, or economically viable.
Some of these people formed bands, often annointed with glossy but unremarkable one-word monikers: Sponge, Drill, Lustre, Cracker, Elastica, Spacehog, Dig, Hole, Belly, Hum, Bush, Toadies, Oasis . . . In a particularly cruel example of market imperative, many of these bands broke up or were without major label record deals by the end of the decade.
But it’s hard to convey all of this in a 90-minute movie, especially one that hopes to cash in on the wages of the very demographic these popcorn flicks were hoping to represent. Some did a decent job of conveying this generation’s ambivalence, particularly indies like Kicking and Screaming. I’d also add that Reality Bites highlights these problems, even pointing out the crass ways in which corporate America capitalizes on the very market its created. While I wish Winona Ryder’s filmmaker character Lalaina didn’t end up with Ethan Hawke’s slacker Troy, I understand why she can’t be with Michael (played by director Ben Stiller), who works for an MTV-type network that makes worm’s meat out of her documentary about her friends.
Richard Linklater’s second feature, Dazed and Confused, did a considerable job at suggesting that Generation X inherited their sense of slacker frustration (and detached nostalgia for Schoolhouse Rock and The Brady Bunch) from their parents. That Linklater cast a bunch of twentysomething unknowns like Joey Lauren Adams, Ben Affleck, Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg, Jason London, Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, and Marisa Ribisi to essentially play the teenagers and young adults who would become their parents may strengthen Robin Wood’s argument that Dazed is a horror film.
Some television shows also did a good job articulating the nuances of the slacker era. I’d offer up British programs like Spaced, along with MTV’s Daria and ABC’s My So-Called Life. The latter featured an angsty girl protagonist, complex teenage characters, depicted boomer parents being just as clueless and angsty as their brood, and created an immortal stoner heartthrob named Jordan Catalano (played by Jared Leto), whose band Frozen Embryos changed their name at the end of the series to perhaps the most perfect of Gen X band names: Residue.
But it’s always different for girls, and unfortunate that Tunney and many of the actresses of her generation were not given the consideration they deserved (though I love that Austin Chronicle writer Margaret Moser fancies herself as being like Balk’s character in Almost Famous). Some may attribute this to their flat delivery or lack of believability, but I’d wager that this has more to do with poor character development on the part of screenwriters and the industrial emphasis on youth than it does on the actresses. At 19, Kristen Stewart is playing the slouched-shoulder ingenue of a multi-million-dollar film franchise, its latest installment complete with a soundtrack featuring of-the-moment, indie and indie-friendly artists like Bon Iver, St. Vincent, Lykke Li, Grizzly Bear, and Thom Yorke. I only hope she has that sort of star power at 25.
So I was originally gonna roll up all cavalier-like and blurt out my opinions on Tank Girl, which I watched for the first time a few nights ago. I had some pre-conceived notions about the movie and what I’d think of it, as the film adaption of the beloved Jamie Hewlett comic is widely regarded as a commercial and critical flop.
Now I’m not entirely sure how to approach the subject matter, because a) I’m not sure how to read this movie, as it is disjointed and oftentimes inscrutable, b) I didn’t realize going into my viewing that several friends were fans of both the movie and the comic, and c) . . . I haven’t gotten around to reading the comic. I’m more than willing to read it, especially since I’m a fan of Hewlett’s work with Damon Albarn on Gorillaz and am interested in their ongoing professional relationship. I simply haven’t had the chance yet, as I just finished Truman Capote’s super-dense In Cold Blood and started Margaret Atwood’s promising The Blind Assassin. If anyone has a copy they’d like to push into my hands, my palms are flat and open.
But I still wanted to see the movie and write about it because:
1. Lori Petty stars as Rebecca Buck and I wish her career had taken off instead of stalling around the time of this movie’s 1995 release. While she’s recently run into some legal troubles and I still haven’t seen Point Break or Prey for Rock’N’Roll, I’ve long had a soft spot for this tough, mouthy, gender-queer tomboy ever since her turn as Kit Keller in A League of Their Own. It’s too bad that she was replaced by Sandra Bullock in Demolition Man and that Gwen Stefani sounds just like her, with both women having more visible, financially successful careers.
2. Speaking of Stefani, did she rip off Tank Girl’s style to cultivate her own look, because oh my damn do they look alike.
But maybe I’m being unfair in pitting Petty/Tank Girl against Stefani against one another and instead should remember the cultural context from which they were formed. I’m reminded of my thesis adviser Mary Kearney, whose dissertation focused on contemporary discourses around girlhood and youth culture. Joy Van Fuqua draws on Kearney’s work in her essay “‘What Are Those Little Girls Made Of?’ The Powerpuff Girls and Consumer Culture.” In her discussion of the show’s popularity, Van Fuqua borrows from Kearney to suggest that, like many other girl characters during the 1990s, Bubbles, Buttercup, and Blossom had to embody both genders in order to succeed in athletics and other male-dominated activities.
3. Speaking of promising actresses, Naomi Watts plays her sidekick and was a total nobody in the states when the movie was originally released. She’s also rockin’ a brunette bob haircut, which I appreciate.
4. Speaking of wacky ladies, Ann Magnuson makes an appearance as a madame who runs a state-of-the-art brothel where folks like Iggy Pop run around in drag and the talent break out into Busby Berkeley-esque routines to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It.”
5. Speaking of musicians, the soundtrack is an alternative rock behemoth. Hard to imagine many of the artists represented here got radio play in 1995. Alternative was commercially successful, allowing rock music to splinter off in various, musically diverse directions. Hootie was a major player, but Pulp could get a hit single. Beck was at this point a one-hit wonder, but was working on an era-defining record that would come out the following year. The bubble hadn’t burst yet. Man, 1995 was a strange and amazing time. Bush, Björk, Veruca Salt, L7, Belly, Portishead, Hole. They were all on commercial radio playlists and they’re also on this soundtrack.
6. Speaking of Hole, note that Courtney Love was the movie’s music consultant. Now, I’m not entirely sure what her title means here. Titles like “music consultant” and “music supervisor” tend to be flexible. The latter term is usually held by people who work closely with the director, the editor, and multiple representatives from various record labels, as well as help tend to legal matters like acquiring publishing rights, and clearing songs to be used in the movie and often the accompanying soundtrack.
My hunch is that Love’s duties were picking what songs she liked and would work with the movie, but had little involvement in the production. After all, she was a busy lady who was trying to heal from the death of her husband, raise her daughter, become a respected actress, and headline Lollapalooza with her band Hole. I don’t think she had time to field phone calls with label execs, although I’d like to imagine what those conversations might be like.
7. Oh, and since the first six points all involved women, let’s add the cherry on top. Tank Girl was directed by a woman named Rachel Talalay.
But as far as reading this movie . . . hummina. I don’t know what I saw. I know it takes place in what is now a not-too-distant, dystopian future and involves our fearless heroine leading a rag-tag group of girls and mutant kangaroo boys against a corrupt faction that control the earth’s water supply. Still with me? Here’s the trailer.
So, things I enjoyed or found interesting about the movie.
1. Naomi Watts kicks ass as Jet Girl. At first shy and fretful, she learns to embrace her intellect and technological savvy and develops the confidence to take charge of the crew and help beat the cast of baddies.
2. Tank Girl has strong relationships with Jet Girl and Rebecca, Tank Girl’s boyfriend’s young daughter. Homosocial bonding and female mentorship, holla!
3. OMG, the costumes. They could be a chapter in a dissertation on third-wave feminism’s fragmentive, performative, and self-reflexive relationship with fashion (note: if such a chapter exists, I want to read it). Tank Girl never wears the same outfit or hair color twice, and her wardrobe toys with historical periods, film genres, youth culture movements, often playing with age, gender, and race as well.
4. I can’t tell if Ann Magnuson’s Madame, who briefly kidnaps and attempts to employ Rebecca, is a sex-positive feminist, a critique against the then-timely rise of media’s interest in d0-me feminism, or just morally bankrupt.
And then there were things I hated.
1. While Tank Girl’s costuming is fascinating, that’s really the extent of her characterization. Much of this seems to be the fault of the writing. Petty is engaging enough, but Tank Girl is written as less a complex action heroine and more of a buzzword-and-slogan dispenser. Thus, she brings to mind characters like Itchy and Scratchy‘s Poochie, who was created to make fun of corporate-friendly extreme, in-your-face, subcultural cash cows. Perhaps her perceived lack of depth speaks to the awkward process of adapting a comic book into a movie, but her cinematic flatness betrays the torpedo bras.
2. Tank Girl also kicks a disappointing lack of ass here and has questionable methods. I can’t speak to her defense strategies in the comic, but the movie repeatedly has her lure disgusting men with her feminine wiles. Sometimes they get kicked in the balls, but she still shows them her bra or promises sexual favors beforehand.
3. Man, how did Malcolm MacDowell fool people into thinking he could act? He’s the villainous Kesslee here and is making himself quite the ham sandwich. Some may bring up Al Pacino and note that certain actors deliver progressively broader performances as they age, but I think MacDowell’s accent played a role in snowing audiences as well. I think his Britishness even convinced people he was better in If . . . and A Clockwork Orange than he actually was. Charismatic and handsome? Yes. Once a great actor? I don’t think so.
4. I feel like there’s something racially problematic about the mutant kangaroo soldiers who take up with Tank Girl’s crew. Thoughts?
In short, Tank Girl makes for a maddening but interesting spectatorial experience. Now to get a hold of the source material . . .