Tagged: Philadelphia

“Will you still love me tomorrow?”: Charlotte Greig reconfigures girl groups

Cover of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?: Girl Groups from the 50s on . . .; image courtesy of Amazon.com

Cover of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?: Girl Groups from the 50s on . . .; image courtesy of Amazon.com

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.

Jazmine, Miranda, Zooey and cotton: the fabric of their lives

I keep forgetting to write about Cotton Incorporated’s Fabric of My Life ad campaign. But there seems to be a demand (specifically from my friends, the Kristens, who urged me to do a write-up at lunch today). So, let’s turn this draft into post, friends.

In a nutshell, three female singer-songwriters (Jazmine Sullivan, Miranda Lambert, and Zooey Deschanel, respectively representing R&B, country, and crossover indie pop) retool the jingle to let you, the (female, aged 18-34) consumer see just how easy, functional, versatile, and, above all, hip and stylish cotton is. The campaign, created by DDB, was launched in April, with 30-second spots running on television and the Internet.

To my knowledge, the print campaign will launch sometime this summer. This could suggest that the campaign isn’t doing so well. My hunch, though, is that magazines, now crippled by the recession, have been tightening their advertising budgets throughout the 2000s in the wake of several publication folds as more people have become reliant on computers, search engines, and social media to provide them with information.

The campaign has a micro-site, complete with extended versions of the television ads, behind-the-scenes-footage, interviews from the spokeswomen, customizable interactive style books, and Facebook applications. Personally, I thought the micro-site was pretty useless. I built a style book and didn’t need Cotton Incorporated to tell me that I like bright solids, flats and sneakers, minimal yet quirky jewelry, and an overall elegantly off-kilter look. I’ve been dressing myself for some time now. But the micro-site’s existence is interesting and a clear indication of how advertising is evolving and making itself appear more individualistic and available to John and Jane Websurfer.

I find the television ads interesting too, though I never actually saw them on the big glowing box in my living room (I saw them on the little glowing box in my office). While part of the same campaign, the three spots stand alone. They feature three different narrators with different musical styles, different “personal” styles (I assume these women have stylists), and different fan bases. Thus, they cultivate different images for themselves, which is evident in the narrative differences in both the songs and the ads. The two things they all do are 1) stare out a window as if inspired — perhaps by cotton? — and 2) play dress-up at the end of each ad, with the final shot being a closet door.

With Sullivan, we have an aspirational narrative — the opening line, “they said it was only a dream, and dreaming was only for fools” is accompanied by images of Jazmine at a photo shoot. As the song goes on, Jazmine assures us that dreams “are alive just like me and you” and “can be real if you let them.” We see her being touched up by various (African American, one white) stylists, strolling through an upscale urban area (that I’m guessing is Philadelphia, where she calls home), writing in a local coffee shop, and talking to (African American, one white) students in a music school.

With Lambert, we have a “back to my roots” narrative — the opening line “took a shot, shooting for the stars, working overtime” is accompanied by the glammed-up singer being photographed at a red carpet event. The next line “you and I know it’s a struggle for the high road; I keep it simple though” coincides with images of Lambert on her tour bus, writing, playing guitar, and cuddling her dog. Upon her return home, we see an excessive display of folksiness — feeding the chickens, tending to a horse, and fly fishing (!).

Finally, with Deschanel, we have a “personal day” narrative — the opening line “woke up today, it was another lovely day” underscores Deschanel performing a concert, before running off-stage (rather sheepishly) and reappearing at home, working on a song at the piano, where she also keeps Post-It notes. From there, she wanders the (Los Angeles?) streets, walking a bike around, looking for banjos at an outdoor market, and hitting up the record store.

I’d like to point out some disparity in popularity. In my estimation, Sullivan and Lambert are similarly matched as representatives of their genre — not superstars like Beyoncé and Carrie Underwood, but young, established artists with a growing fan base. This can be crudely calculated by the number of hits their YouTube clips received (13,655 for Sullivan, 13,884 for Lambert). Deschanel’s clip, however, was viewed 144,032 times. I don’t think this has to do with her popularity as a musician–She and Him, her project with M. Ward backed by Merge Records, is what my partner terms “NPR-big”. Rather, I think Deschanel the spokeswoman gets to capitalize on two key aspects of her public persona that the other two artists can’t–she is also an established actress and fashion maven.

And it’s pretty easy to see how these narratives play into generic conventions, and how those conventions are raced and classed. Sullivan, a black woman and R&B singer, is aligned with the city, her neighborhood (but not her home, which we don’t see beyond her closet), and educational programs within her community to “set an example” and “make a difference” (and probably shoulder some burden of representation). Lambert, who was raised in Lindale, Texas–a small, Christian, predominantly white farming community in East Texas– eschews the glitzy artifice of the entertainment industry for the “realness” of her roots. Deschanel, who was born into an entertainment family, lives in a quirky but assuredly upscale (and potentially gentrified) neighborhood that was bought by her career as an actor from a reputable family, which affords her considerable creative and leisure time.

So, while the spokeswomen may serve to be all things to all (female) people and get those people to buy from Cotton Incorporated, who those people are tellingly different from one another.

“Swagga like us”: Musicians do motherhood their way

It’s Mother’s Day weekend and to celebrate, I thought today I’d write up a tribute to some awesome women who balance and blend the dual identities of musician and mother in their own ways.

First up, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott.

Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, sharing the spotlight

Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, sharing the spotlight

So much to love about these two. They’re smart, talented, politically conscious, unconventionally beautiful, and have earned plenty of mainstream recognition but choose to stay on the fringe of popular culture.

Also, they’re autonomous women who have opted out of a conventional family unit. Both are unmarried. Badu had son Seven and daughters Puma and Mars from her relationships with André 3000 of OutKast, The D.O.C., and Jay Electronica, respectively. Scott is divorced and welcomed the birth of her first child, Jett, with her boyfriend, Lil John Roberts, last year at the age of 36.

And finally, I love that they’re friends, came up from the Philly “neo-soul” circuit together, and often perform together (as evidenced from the photo above; see also their stirring performance of “You Got Me” on Dave Chappelle’s Block Party). I like to imagine that they hang out together a lot, helping each other write, sing, or think through the struggles and joys of daily life.

Next up, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon.

The Gordon Moores, rocking out on The Gilmore Girls

The Gordon-Moores, rocking out on "The Gilmore Girls"

After being married to bandmate Thurston Moore for about ten years, Gordon (who kept her name, thank you) gave birth to Coco Hayley Gordon Moore in 1994, thus bringing presumably one of the coolest girls into the world as a result. I like to imagine that Coco was schooling her classmates about Merzbow by the sixth grade. Also, a friend of mine’s sister used to babysit Coco, and says that she is a really nice, well-adjusted kid. Yay!

I like that Kim had Coco — an only child — on her own time and later in life. It probably reminds me of my mom, who had me (and only me) at 36. Plus, Gordon and Moore performed a song with Coco on The Gilmore Girls. How cool is that?

Speaking of cool moms, what about M.I.A., who welcomed her first son Ikhyd into the world with fiancé Benjamin Brewer earlier this year?

M.I.A. at the Grammys, days before giving birth; image courtesy of fashion.mirror.co.uk

Unfortunately, I can’t find a hi-res version of the Grammy performance of T.I.’s “Swagga Like Us”, but I really love it. I love that M.I.A., whose song “Paper Planes” is sampled and provides the song title, opens the performance. I love that she interacts with the other rappers, who seem to be treating her as an equal. I love that the men she shares the stage with, all of whom are African American and thus stigmatized by the racist, sexist stereotype of the wayward, absentee black father, seem to be excited and happy for her. I love that she’s ready-to-burst pregnant in public and is wearing a tight, short, see-through black and white dress, thus confronting and subverting the conception of the sexless matriarch (in fact, she got a lot of flak for the dress; some people dubbed it “slutty” and “trashy”). I also love that she paired the ensemble with sneakers, because pregnant ladies gotta be comfortable. And most of all, I love that we haven’t seen much of baby Ikhyd since he came into the world, suggesting that the family wants their son to grow up a person and not a tabloid ficture.

Another low-key mom is Yoshimi Yokota, legendary drummer of Boredoms and singer/guitarist of OOIOO.

Yoshimi  and OOIOO, debating whether or not to spare the rod

Yoshimi and OOIOO, debating whether or not to spare the rod

Like Gordon, she’s got one daughter, and seems to be pleased with that. But like M.I.A., she’s not forthcoming about her personal life, particularly the family she’s creating for herself. And finally, I love that unlike what we may expect from mom musicians, Yoshimi doesn’t think her entrance into motherhood has changed her music.

And finally, the mother of all cool musician moms, Björk.

Quality time with Björk and son Sindri; image captured from art-gallery.com

Quality time with Björk and son Sindri; image captured from art-gallery.com

So, Björk is interesting for many reasons. Like Badu, she had two children with two different partners (son Sindri with former Sugarcubes bandmate Þór Eldon; daughter Ísadóra with artist Matthew Barney). There’s also an unsual age difference between her children. Sindri was born in 1986, when Björk was 21. Ísadóra was born sixteen years later in 2002. And, despite her diminuitive figure and elfin looks, Björk is fiercely protective of her children and their privacy (anyone remember when Björk went off and beat up a journalist who waved a microphone in Sindri’s face at the airport?). Don’t fuck with mom.

But these moms are just a few examples. Who are your favorite musician moms?