Back in April, the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Nirvana, Linda Ronstadt, KISS, Hall & Oates, the E Street Band, Cat Stevens, and Peter Gabriel at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In addition, managers Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham won the Ahmet Ertegun Award, a prize for music industry intermediaries that was renamed in 1987 when the Atlantic Records founder received the honor. The ceremony aired on HBO, a broadcasting decision that allowed musicians’ blue language and sprawling performances to remain intact and gave the channel an opportunity to implicitly remind viewers about their forthcoming Foo Fighters documentary series.
Musicians are eligible for induction 25 years after their first recording. This makes Nirvana the lone first-ballot selection of the 2014 class. Such developments are, at first blush, unremarkable. Industrial institutions—which are often conservative and populist by design—frequently play catch-up when they distribute awards. It’s widely understood that Al Pacino won Best Actor in 1992 less for his scenery-chewing turn in Scent of a Woman than for the body of work that preceded it. This is also often true for institutions that commemorate those efforts from a historical remove. Often, the Rock Hall will recognize one to three recording artists as soon as they reach that 25-year mark. A few peer acts may receive nominations before being filtered out and recycled for consideration on the next year’s ballot.
The remaining inductees suggest the slow evolution of the Rock Hall and raise a few questions for the institution and popular music history moving forward. First, what music is “worthy” of the mantle of cultural significance? In a recent conversation with Alex Pappademas and Wesley Morris about Saul Austerlitz’s indictment of poptimism in the New York Times, Grantland music critic Steven Hyden argued that the decision to induct hard rock enterprise KISS and blue-eyed soul duo Hall & Oates demonstrates criticism’s influence upon the music industry to revise and reappraise the merit of history’s bad objects, corporate artifacts, and hybrid outfits. Such sentiments were reflected in guitarist Tom Morello’s induction of KISS. He identified their status as critical poison while simultaneously claiming that their “real” position were as schoolyard heroes for generations of disaffected youth, many of whom went on (like Morello) to pick up guitars and form bands. The quartet reinforced these points in their acceptance speech.
Questions of worth reveal a lot about systems of power. Who bestows worth onto another? When is the beneficiary’s moment decided? These questions continue to plague the Rock Hall, which has a notoriously opaque nomination and voting process that is often legible as “whatever Jann Wenner likes.” A few inductees challenged the effectiveness of such deliberations. Daryl Hall noted that his group was the only “homegrown Philadelphia band” in the Rock Hall. “Now, I’m not saying that because I’m proud of that. I’m saying that ‘cuz that’s fucked up,” he continued before rattling off a list of artists that included Todd Rundgren, the Stylistics, the Delphonics, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and Chubby Checker (!). Later in the ceremony, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic would offer a similar, albeit less polemical statement when he introduced Joan Jett during their finale as an artist who should be in the Rock Hall. I would add Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon before and after I saw her sing “Aneurysm” with the band, a moment which Courtney Love deemed “the punkest performance, the one that Kurt would’ve approved of the most” in a Pitchfork interview with Jenn Pelly.
Here’s a more basic question: what is rock music? This is a concern the Rock Hall has been struggling with for several years. It’s the question at the heart of rock’s existence as a genre. During our viewing, my mother-in-law asked if Linda Ronstadt qualified as rock. I don’t know. Where do the blues, R&B, and country end? How is a genre distinct and how is it reassembled to create “rock”? White privilege is one answer. The hegemony of electric guitar is another. But, as Hyden pointed out, the Rock Hall is one of the few institutions that stills treats “rock” as a catch-all term for “popular music,” an antiquated notion held over from its founding in 1983. Hyden predicts that less rock acts will get inducted in the future. First, there are now no longer as many rock bands that have the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and U2’s mass appeal. Second, the Rock Hall historically ignores more obscure rock bands like Sonic Youth and the Minutemen, despite their influence. Third, since the 90s, rock stars’ industrial and cultural significance shifted to hip-hop, R&B, and pop artists. Kanye West is this generation’s Axl Rose.
What generic hybridity and historical revision suggest is that essentialist definitions of identity don’t hold and, for many, never did. In my more cynical moments, I often reduce Rock Hall inductions to “a lotta blonde wives.” But feminism requires us to care about blonde wives, regardless of whether one of them is Courtney Love. This raises another question: how does identity shape our historical understanding of popular music? At the very least, it makes us think about how rock music is a product of male vanity (Gene Simmons’ hair!). But when Michael Stipe gave a touching speech about Nirvana’s disidentification with the mainstream and their negotiated outsider status among “the fags, the fat girls, the broken toys, the shy nerds, and the goth kids from Tennessee and Kentucky” in and beyond the historical context of a citizenry “practically dismantled by Iran-Contra, by AIDS, by the Reagan/Bush Sr. administrations,” it put Art Garfunkel’s bloviation at Cat Stevens and the condescending sexism of “Wild World” into stark relief.
I’m creating a binary I don’t entirely agree with. Rock Hall ceremonies are studies in pomposity, in overlong jam sessions and acceptance speeches, in hagiographies, in hot-air meditations on popular music as capital-a “Art” instead of sweaty traces of lowercase-f “fun.” But they also serve as evidence of industrial and interpersonal conflict. What does music do to workers? Bands like Blondie, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Led Zeppelin used the podium as a space to unearth past grievances around authorship and attribution. Members of groups like the Clash, the Beastie Boys, and Nirvana accepted their awards amid absence. Musicians like Peter Gabriel reinforced that “In Your Eyes” is an example of profound songwriting and an important collaboration, even though the singer lost his falsetto to age and work.
Since the Rock Hall represents music as labor, Bruce Springsteen inducting the E Street Band was especially poignant. In his speech, Springsteen reflected on negotiating his recording contract as a solo artist with his professional autonomy to hire “side men” who were collaborators with distinct skills, contributions, and artistic perspectives. He spoke with deep regret that organist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons were not in attendance. Guitarist Patti Scialfa navigated being the musician who broke through the boy’s club, the subject of “Red-Headed Woman,” and a member of another family with Springsteen. He also recalled a tense conversation with guitarist Steven Van Zandt on the eve of his induction as a solo artist in 1999. Van Zandt wanted Springsteen to stand up for the band, claiming that Springsteen with E Street was the legend. But this issue remains unresolved, as the broadcast edited down the band’s acceptance speeches and played it as background noise during breaks in their “Kitty’s Back” performance. Side men and women still struggle for legibility, even as they’re being recognized by their industry.
This is my favorite question to ask of the Rock Hall: what artists are put in conversation with each other? I watch the ceremony for the pairings and the performances. Who gets to induct these musicians into the Rock Hall? Who gets to share the stage with them? I remember being disappointed when Anthony Kiedis inducted the Talking Heads in 2002. First, the Red Hot Chili Peppers front man couldn’t hang up his butt rock Lothario image for one night; he had to emphasize bassist Tina Weymouth’s hipster sex appeal over her contributions to the band’s omnivorous sound. Second, I’m not sure what the two groups share except for their (wildly divergent) relationships to funk. But even such facile connections interest me, because they allow us to consider popular music as an exchange, as well as what relationships the music industry values and what heritage really means. Who matters to music’s past and future?
The 2014 ceremony had several interesting pairings. Questlove’s Hall & Oates induction speech highlighted the duo’s regional influence on Philadelphia’s musical identity, the feedback loop between the white soul group and their predominantly black early fan base, and the Roots’ drummer’s amusing childhood associations with “She’s Gone” and its various musical and paratextual elements. Carrie Underwood sang alongside Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, and Stevie Nicks during a Linda Ronstadt medley that begged the question: “is this a VH1 Divas concert?” Underwood’s performance of “Different Drum” also underlined a productive tension between her “Country Barbie” image and the song’s commercial flirtation with Sexual Revolution-era proclamations like “It’s just that I am not in the market for a boy who wants to love only me.”
Much of the press coverage surrounding the ceremony focused on Nirvana’s grrrl germs performance. A friend made a perceptive comparison between it and the 2010 BET Awards’ all-female Prince tribute medley. In addition to opening up opportunities for female artists to reinterpret men’s musical contributions, both performances make tribute an intergenerational concern. Also, would Cobain have clung to Gordon’s silver wedges like Prince did after Patti LaBelle kicked off her heels while taking “Purple Rain” to church? Would he have a hand in the selection process, as Prince did when he requested that Janelle Monáe perform “Let’s Go Crazy”? Would he bristle at homage’s patriarchal implications?
It was great to see Novoselic, Dave Grohl, and Pat Smear share the stage with Jett, Gordon, St. Vincent, and Lorde. I wish that there was more of interaction between the women during the medley, but I liked that Jett, Gordon, and Annie Clark accompanied Lorde on “All Apologies.” I was also moved by Love’s engagement with them as a spectator. On “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Jett nailed the ellipses, vague mumbling, and weird cadences of the song’s self-conscious teen-speak. Originally, I thought Gordon should’ve done “Polly” or “Rape Me,” but “Aneurysm” allowed the group to acknowledge Incesticide’s legacy and avoid misrepresenting Gordon’s erotic menace as a vocalist. St. Vincent’s take on “Lithium” was strong, but it also demonstrated that Nirvana’s deceptively primitive songwriting can limit a musician as accomplished as Clark. The cryptic imagery and discordant bridge on “Heart-Shaped Box” would have given her more to play. Lorde—whose presence I anticipated after Ann Powers argued that Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s mainstream elaboration on “young female voices finding themselves within a forest of electronically generated sounds” made her “the Nirvana of now”—may be the only pop star of her generation who can convincingly sing “I wish I was like you/easily amused.” Lorde approached it as a put-down, but she may connect more with it later as an expression of need. It’s both.
Such collaborations allow us to consider what the Rock Hall has become and what it could still be. It was exciting to see four women reinterpret men’s work. But we still have yet to fully challenge rock’s hegemonic whiteness. What if Tamar-Kali was there to perform “On a Plain”? I thought about Mariah Carey’s Hole fandom and imagined how the organization could break down boundaries of gender and race by providing space for artists to celebrate each other across musical genres. It raises one last question: who will share the stage with Lorde if she gets inducted in 2038?
Last week, Caitlin at Dark Room sent me an e-mail about how Lizzy Caplan plays a music journalist in Hot Tub Time Machine. As the subject header referred to her as a manic pixie dream girl, I didn’t hold out much hope for any development of her character. Caitlin had earlier mentioned on her blog that she was planning on seeing Hot Tub Time Machine despite being pretty positive that it was just another dudes night out picture because Crispin Glover is in it.
I was planning on seeing it because it’s called Hot Tub Time Machine. It’s the best genius-stoopid movie title I’ve heard since Snakes on a Plane, which I also saw during it’s theatrical run. Matter of fact, I was in Raccoons on Space Shuttle, one of Mascot Wedding‘s very funny shorts. See if you can spot me. I’ll help you out: I’m wearing a wig and I’m “acting.”
As for the movie itself, it brings time travel into another jerky bro movie, with all of its anxieties about homosexuality, women, and race where a bunch of sad sacks somehow (undeservedly) come out ahead in the end. I won’t defend my viewing of it apart from it was a dumb comedy with some silly moments that was fun to watch while drinking a beer and eating a burger with my friends.
Except there is the music geek aspect of it, which I actually wasn’t aware of until Caitlin told me. And Lizzy Caplan played one of my favorite characters in Mean Girls and I wish I saw her in more things.
Caplan plays April, a journalist for Spin Magazine, once the cooler alternative to the more established Rolling Stone, as well as an up-start by the movie’s timeline, which flashes back from the present to 1986, a year after the publication’s founding. She’s on assignment covering Poison, who are headlining a music festival at the ski lodge where the group of friends are staying. You know she’s cool because she clearly hates Poison, sneaks into unoccupied cabins, and is wearing a floppy hat with a flower cut-out.
But mainly, she’s just the wacky love interest for John Cusack’s Adam. She’s on board with this stranger’s story about being transported to the past, despite appearing at once too old for her to the audience and too young for her in the story’s timeline. She also refuses to give Adam her number in hopes that their paths will cross someday, which is basically the plot to Serendipity, a romantic comedy Cusack starred in with Kate Beckinsale.
Which brings us to Cusack’s function in the movie. While Rob Corddry steals the show as insufferable cad Lou and Craig Robinson winningly underplays Nick, it’s really Cusack’s movie. In addition to serving as one of the movie’s producers, long-time friend and co-writer Steve Pink directs what is ultimately an homage to Cusack’s Better Off Dead.
Plus, having Cusack play a character who falls in love with a music geek really only serves to bolster his own on-screen persona as a music-savvy underdog. This is an image that’s been perpetuated at least as far back as when Lloyd Dobler lifted a boombox blaring Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” to win back Diane Court in Say Anything . . .
While this image has carried on into movies like Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity, at least his love interests in those movies were peer music geeks and interesting women. We get a female music geek in Hot Tub Time Machine. Pity we don’t actually find out anything about her.
Today’s post is a review of Debi Withers’s Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory. I’ve actually been holding onto it for a while, as Withers was good enough to have her publisher HammerOn Press send me a copy (my hunch is that a previous entry on Bush’s The Dreaming, wherein I cited her essay on Lionheart, got me the free wares). I read it a little over a week ago but amid all the SXSW revelry, didn’t get a chance to review it. I wanted to have a clear head when drafting an appraisal, so here goes.
For those unfamiliar with her work, Withers is an English queer feminist cultural studies scholar who focuses on music culture. She also puts theory into practice as a contributor to musical projects like Drunk Granny and Voice Tribe. Much of her scholarship has focused on Kate Bush, out of which this book was formed.
Adventures is a fun read that embraces feminist and queer theory while making it accessible to folks who haven’t gotten down and dirty with Luce Irigaray. As someone who doesn’t consider herself much of a theoryhead and always looks for a practical application when reading such works, I appreciated that Withers provided such an interesting subject to attach theoretical abstractions to. Importantly, Withers makes clear that she will not be talking about Kate Bush the musician, but rather Kate Bush the personae, which she refers to throughout as the Bush Feminine Subject (BFS). While I think the term potentially turns the subject into something of a monolith, the distinction must be made and the use of the musician’s given name cannot suffice. As Withers is astute to point out, there’s a big difference between Kate Bush and “Kate Bush.” Never a strictly autobiographical writer, Kate Bush penned songs about girls in incestuous relationships with male siblings, Houdini’s wife, unborn babies, Wilhelm Reich, Karen from The Red Shoes, Peter Pan, Catherine Earnshaw, burglars, aborigines, gay bon vivants, and mothers of dead soldiers. “Kate Bush” embodied them, often modifying her own singing voice to do so. She often recorded and performed these characters with a flair for the dramatic and drama’s inclination toward camp.
Withers cherry-picks from Bush’s catalog, forming a life cycle out of thematic elements in The Kick Inside, Lionheart, Never For Ever, The Dreaming, and The Red Shoes, as well as the final movements of Hounds of Love and Aerial. According to Withers, Kick represents the birth of the BFS, along with coming-of-age preoccupations like menstruation (“Strange Phenomena”) and young love, whether doomed (“Wuthering Heights”) or forbidden (the title track). Lionheart is a showcase for the artist’s preoccupations with performance, disguise, camp, maturation, and sexuality, which all often take on queer associations. Never For Ever marks a transitional period, demonstrating at once her interest in costume and mistaken identity (“Babooshka”) while at the same time insinuating a politicized awareness toward modern life, best exemplified with “Breathing,” a song delivered by a fetus who is aware of the nuclear fallout its mother is trying to live through.
From here The Dreaming comes to represent the artist’s ongoing personal evolution. Withers argues this is attained through politicized awareness of other cultures (the title track), the reinvigorated investment with one’s own (“Night of the Swallow,” which acknowledges Bush’s Irish heritage), the commitment to being receptive to knowledge (“Leave It Open”), as well as struggle (“Sat In Your Lap”) and resistance (“Get Out Of My House,” an anti-rape song that draws The Shining, turning the house into a metaphor for the female body). In addition, The Dreaming is also concerned with the process of metamorphosis, most often involving people turning into machines. As this was Bush’s first sole production credit, this theme takes on personal connotations about the artist’s relationship to her work. Finally, Withers argues that The Red Shoes (and Bush’s accompanying short, The Line, The Cross, and The Curve) symbolizes the suicide of the artist, drawing from the lore of the Hans Christian Andersen tale as well as the 1948 movie by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (for an in-depth reading on the movie, Matthew Dessem’s essay for Criterion Contraption is as good a place as any to start). As Withers argues that artistry transcends mortality, the subject is reborn with Hounds of Love‘s “The Ninth Wave” and disappears with Aerial‘s “A Sky of Honey,” the final movement off Bush’s most recent album, which was released twelve years after her previous studio offering, The Red Shoes.
I’m not sold on structuring the artist’s work this way, as I think that at times Withers pushes the interpretation of the life cycle onto Bush’s work, though I do understand from working on a master’s thesis that the process of organizing a larger body of work to fit a document is a problematic one. And while I understand why Withers wants to focus attention away from Hounds of Love, Bush’s best-known album, I feel she does a disservice by glossing over certain albums. The omission of The Sensual World is particularly troubling, as Bush believed it to be her most feminine work. Furthermore, it contains songs like “Deeper Understanding,” which is concerned with the potentially humanizing and dehumanizing connotations of digital interactions and fits nicely into Bush’s work on The Dreaming.
As subjectivity is a key theme in Withers book, I’m pleased at how she unpacked the identity politics evident in Bush’s ouvre. Withers is quick to point out Bush’s interest in camp, performance, and ambiguity, as well as the matter of vocality, all of which suggests elements of queerness in her work. Vocality is a particularly interesting matter, as Bush often sang as multiple subjects and tended to sing across age ranges, gender and sex catagories, and orientations depending on her subject in any given song.
In addition, it’s important to note that Bush has a big queer following. Men like Rufus Wainwright and Alan Cumming have professed their fandom, as have publications like Out. More importantly, Withers brings in her own sexuality into the discussion and argues that lesbians also have quite an affinity for Bush, a fan base and culture that Bush acknowledges and celebrates in certain songs and music videos.
I also appreciate Withers interrogation of race and nationality and how Bush’s position as a middle-class, white British woman is a problematic one. At times, Bush is something of a fetishist and voyeur of the other (particularly of East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and African/African American culture). Given her country’s problematic history with colonialism, this obsession takes on even more troubling dimensions. The matter of the nice white lady is a problem I run into all the time as a feminist (and nice white lady). It’s a matter I brought up when discussing Joanna Newsom’s latest album and it’s an issue that informs my ambivalent feelings toward other white feminist icons like Liz Lemon (for more recent offerings on her, I’d recommend reading Sady Doyle and Amanda Hess’s recent conversation following Doyle’s Tiger Beatdown piece on the subject).
While I enjoyed Adventures, I wish Withers would’ve contextualized the subjective nature of Bush’s fame. In the UK, Australia, and parts of Europe, Bush is a pop star of considerable renown, achieving commercial and critical success I’d estimate somewhere between Björk’s slightly-left-of-mainstream status and Madonna’s superstardom in the states. But in America, Bush is strictly a cult phenomenon. She did receive some recognition for minor hits like “Running Up That Hill,” “Cloudbusting,” and “Rubberband Girl.” Early videos like “The Man With The Child In His Eyes,” were a part of MTV’s original rotation schedule. “Don’t Give Up,” a duet she recorded with Peter Gabriel, has been featured in television and film and has been covered extensively. Similar things can be said of “This Woman’s Work.” Maxwell’s cover of the song was used in a routine for So You Think You Can Dance? that was meant to raise awareness about breast cancer.
Yet, Bush never really crossed over in the United States. She may have been on Top of the Pops but she was a hardly a fixture on the American late night talk show circuit. She never landed the cover of Rolling Stone, much less been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many people may not have heard of her, though her influence has carried over to contemporary acts like Tori Amos, Bat for Lashes, and Joanna Newsom. In short, she’s a cult figure here.
Thus, when reading the book, it was hard for me to take Bush’s celebrity as a given. By putting such a focus on the albums and what they suggest about the BFS’s trajectory, I kept wondering about the actual Kate Bush behind it and how such an eccentric, challenging musical figure was so widely accepted in her home country. While Withers acknowledges the anomalous conditions that allowed for Bush’s success, I was left wanting to greater sociohistoric context. What other artists were popular at the time? How was Bush able to produce her own material? What was her recording contract like? Who did she work with? Did early supporters like Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour sway the buying public? How were her videos received, and how did they intervene as the musician became more reticent to grant interviews and tour following the release of Lionheart? Did her unfounded reputation as a reclusive madwoman sensationalize her and thus make her a (shudder) hot commodity?
Also did much of Bush’s fame rest not only on her ability to meld feminized forms like piano-based folk singing with the masculinized practices of punk’s commitment to DIY ethics and confrontational sexual politics, but also with her clear indebtedness to glam? It’s no coincidence that she studied dance with Lindsay Kemp, who worked extensively with David Bowie, most notably during the Ziggy Stardust era. Yet like Bush, glam was far less ubiquitous in American popular consciousness in its time than it was in Great Britain. While Withers does provide some context, I think she presumes her reader to be British. Thus, I wonder how accessible this book would be to other audiences outside of Western Europe.
That said, for those who are die-hard Bush fans, nascent appreciators, or life-long feminist theorists, this book is one to add to the shelves. Open the book, throw on a record, and let the debate continue.
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.
As a means to enrich my interest in girl groups, I’ve been looking for literature on the subject. One book my thesis adviser recommended was English writer Charlotte Greig’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?: Girl Groups from the 50s on . . ., which covers the girl group era (roughly 1960-1964) from both sides of the Atlantic, as well as girl groups that predated the era and formed (and continue to form) in the wake of its legacy.
I liked this book fine. It’s a good primer for folks just getting into girl groups (I’d certainly assign the chapters on the Brill Building or Motown to an undergrad class on gender and music culture). It’s smart and celebratory yet critical of the gender politics of girl groups without alienating a reader not hip to, say, Judith Butler’s thoughts on gender performativity. Greig also employs her trade skills as a journalist, so there’s lots of neat and valuable first-person accounts from folks like Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich and members of the Marvelettes and the Velvelettes. And there’s lots of fascinating tidbits Greig throws in that could be spun into their own books. For example:
Did you know that American Bandstand started as a radio show on WFIL in Philadelphia, on the outskirts of town? Did you know that it became a television show because bored Italian American teenage girls from the neighboring West Catholic High School would hang out after school and start dancing to the records? Did you also know that existing within this group were class tensions that were easily reflected in girls’ particular clothes and hairdos? I certainly didn’t.
Perhaps unsurprising, but did you know that Brill Building songwriter/producer Ellie Greenwich worked with her husband Jeff Barry, who elbowed her out of songwriting and production credits because he assumed he’d be the breadwinner while she had the babies? They divorced. 😦
Did you know that almost all of the girl groups Greig discusses (and/or interviews) failed to be compensated for their services? Perhaps unsurprising when you consider the larger context of the early days of rock music and its shady legal dealings with publishing and recording rights, but pretty important when considering the supposed “disposability” of girl groups.
Did you know that Reparata from Reparata and the Delrons (one of the best-named girl groups of the golden era) got her name from a saint? Kinda fascinating. I’d read an entire book on girl groups and Catholicism!
Did you know about that the role the British Invasion had in dismantling the girl group era was largely a myth? Many believe that English rock groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and their brethren were responsible for the demise of the girl group era (which is poor history, as you can see American acts like The Beach Boys, The Temptations, and The Supremes right up there with The Fab Four on the pop charts). Greig does well to remind her audience that groups like The Beatles were actually inspired by girl groups and covered many girl group songs. Instead, Greig attributes pre-mature folds of girl group songwriting factories like the Brill Building out of fear that the British Invasion would spell their demise.
Did you know that there were class differences between the girl groups at Motown? I certainly didn’t but, again, it makes sense. According to other groups like The Marvelettes, The Supremes were given unequal treatment at the record label because they were savvy, culturally-aware city girls. Other groups were comprised of country girls who didn’t grow up in Detroit and, thus, were not as hip or poised.
But these gems, which are often dropped without too much comment, speaks to my biggest problem with the book: it is simply too broad. And at just over 200 pages with a scant bibliography, the fact that she covers so much ground without digging deeper really left me wanting.
That said, I think this book does a noble job broadening the definition of what a girl group is. Greig’s principle mission, as she defines from the outset, is to dispense with the myth that girl groups were born in 1960 and died in 1964. She maintains that girl groups started forming post-World War II and are still forming and recording today (“today” meaning the late 1980s at the time of her writing).
She also argues that girl groups are not adherent to a particular genre, which, read alongside the Rhino girl group box set, seems very true. The girl group sound was actually not one singular generic entity but incorporated R&B, pop, soul, folk, and the blues. Thus, after the 1960s, when the girl group legacy endured, groups would revisit it while folding in reggae, disco, punk, funk, electronic music, and many other styles. And, as girl groups evolved, Greig argues that sometimes they became more politically minded. Particularly in the 70s, funk-based girl groups like Honey Cone tended to endorse a “black is beautiful” agenda.
And acts like LaBelle expanded how black could be beautiful by incorporating the (traditionally white, male) glam- and art-rock stylings of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. However, my partner is quick (and right) to point out that Funkadelic adopted a similar performance style at around the same time, so let’s view LaBelle and Funkadelic alongside one another.
Punk bands like Blondie and The Slits became more makeshift in their look and self-reflexive and parodic in their approach to addressing femininity and consumer culture in their songs. But I feel like Greig gives more focus toward Blondie, so lets look at The Slits more closely.
I do find it a little disconcerting that The Runaways, The Bangles, and The Go-Gos are largely broadsided in this discussion. If two of Greig’s principle concerns with girl groups are: 1) they tend not to have female instrumentalists and 2) they tend to be controlled by male managers and producers, it would have been nice to see her discuss girl bands who encountered and had (varying degrees of) success breaking free from male control.
This omission makes Greig’s inclusion of Vanity 6 and Mary Jane Girls a bit of a hard sell for me. Despite being multi-racial and (often celebratory and raunchy) advocates for sexual agency and pleasure, both groups were also formed and almost completely controlled by men (Prince and Rick James, respectively). As Greig points this out, I would have appreciated a broader context that I feel dicussing girl bands could have provided.
That said, I do think the inclusion of Bananarama is interesting, as they had a punkish, thrift-store edge and often linked themselves to the girl group era by covering song like The Velvelettes’ “He Was Really Saying Something.” I suppose this gets us into the dangerous territory of “wearing” and “trying on” race, but I’ll let you decide.
I also appreciate that Greig included hip hop in the discussion of girl groups, vis-à-vis Salt-N-Pepa, though fear that past lesser-known acts like Northern State, hip hop has historically favored solo artists to groups and has provided scarce resources for women, whether on their own or rhyming with friends.
I’d also be curious as to what Greig would say about groups from my youth like TLC, En Vogue, SWV, The Spice Girls and, during my high school years, Destiny’s Child, 3LW, and Dream. And of course, if we’re expanding girl groups to include punkier acts, I wonder what Greig thinks of Vivian Girls and Mika Miko alongside neo-retro acts like The Pipettes, as well as acts like The Pussycat Dolls who are, for better or for worse, one of the few integrated, multi-racial girl groups to achieve mainstream success since The Ronettes.
Again, all worthwhile endeavors; each in need of their own book for further inquiry.