Tagged: Rolling Stone Magazine

April, music journalist

Lizzy Caplan, Hot Tub Time Machine's manic pixie dream girl; image courtesy of tv.yahoo.com

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.

Lizzy Caplan as Janice Ian in Mean Girls; image courtesy of fanpop.com

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 . . .

John Cusack in Say Anything. . .; image courtesy of accesshollywood.com

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.

Women’s music creates “Radical Harmonies”

We're talking about a revolution -- the women of Olivia Records (from left: Judy Dlugasz, Meg Christian, Ginny Berson, Jennifer Woodul, and Kate Winter); image courtesy of maggiesmetawatershed.blogspot.com

The other day after work, I caught a screening put together by UT’s Center for Women and Gender Studies for Dee Mosbacher’s Radical Harmonies, a documentary about the emergence of women’s music starting in the late 1960s. My friend Carrie was good enough to let me know about it, and I’m glad I went.

I’ll be clear. I know very little about women’s music, apart from it developing out of the lesbian separatist movement of the second wave in the 1970s. I have a cursory awareness of continuations of the tradition, particularly evident in the work of Ani DiFranco, The Indigo Girls, and (my personal favorite) The Murmurs.

I went into the screening with some background knowledge about cult figures like Malvina Reynolds thanks to Jessica Hopper‘s Tweets about getting into her music.

And I recently attended a trans education workshop put together by OutYouth, where GRCA volunteer Paige Schilt gave an great presentation that outlined instances of transphobia from within the feminist movement, touching on the ongoing rectification of exclusionary policies that dictate the parameters female-only spaces at women’s music festivals.

Going in, I had some hesitations. While I appreciate the efforts of these women, the earnestness behind much of their efforts was a bit off-putting at first. For one, with some exception, women’s music is most closely identified as the work of college-education, middle-class liberal white ladies. I’ll map out the ways in which they were cognizant of this and resistant to it in a moment, but at first hearing I felt a little uncomfortable about the precious sentiments in some of this music, particularly in songs like Margie Adam’s “Song to Susan” and Cris Williamson’s “Joana.” To be clear, I wasn’t embarrassed by what they were singing about, but how they went about delivering their message. As I described it to Kristen at Act Your Age, the music has a very “I held hands with my lover in the park” feel to it. Ugh. Eye roll. Insert ironic comment to offset my discomfort. LOL.

I think my initial misgivings speak most closely to a different generational sensibility afforded to women my age who are allowed to have an irreverant, sardonic attitude toward romance, sex, and sexuality. While considerable gains still need to be made for the equality of LGBTQI folks, attitudes have changed that my peers may take for granted. But in the late 1960s, a woman performing a song about being a lesbian was grounds to shut down a concert. This very thing happened to Maxine Feldman when she had the “nerve” to sing “Angry Atthis,” an ode to her lover and a wish to not have to live life in society’s closet.

Cover of Closet Sale (Galaxia, 1979); image courtesy of maggiesmetawatershed.blogspot.com

In addition, these women were fighting rock music’s sexism and misogyny. Not only were they up against having to prove that they were musicians and not groupies, but they were also in opposition to rock’s use of euphemism and suggestion. One need only look toward the mainstream success of rock’s bad boys The Rolling Stones, whose catalog boasted songs like “Brown Sugar” and “Under My Thumb” to get a sense of what women’s music was fighting against. Within folk music, some male artists like Tim “I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain” Buckley were denying any responsibility past their own carnal interests. Even a woman like Joni Mitchell wasn’t safe from rock’s patriarchal strangle-hold, as she was once given the dubious honor of being named Rolling Stone‘s Old Lady of the Year early in her illustrious career.

Actually, Joni Mitchell seems pretty unwilling to be Graham Nash's old lady in this photo; image courtesy of morrisonhotelgallery.com

So I understand the mindset of these women. These songs seem to say “not only are we going to sing about the complex poetics of lesbian desire, but we’re going to make absolutely sure that you know exactly what we’re singing about and to whom. For good measure, we’re going to sound as stripped down and intimate as possible.” Take that, Glimmer Twins.

That said, some associated acts with women’s music knew how to shred. Take Fanny as an example. Boasting Philippine American sisters June and Jean Millington on guitar and bass, the group was, at their time, one of the few all-female bands recording and touring with support from a major label (in their case, Reprise). They also rocked.

As mentioned earlier, women’s music tended to be a white woman’s game. That said, there were women of color on the rosters of female-only record labels like Olivia and Redwood. Some of these acts, like Sweet Honey in the Rock, did not identify as lesbians but were on board with Redwood’s pro-woman message. Leader Bernice Johnson Reagon, who was a member of The Freedom Singers and founded Sweet Honey after being moved by Joan Little’s case, could also identify with the label’s political leanings.

Other artists, like Gwen Avery, Judith Casselberry, and Deidre McCalla were openly gay African American women and developed substantial followings. Apparently Avery developed quite a following with her song “Sugar Mama,” which was featured on Olivia’s Lesbian Concentrate compilation.

Cover for Lesbian Concentrate, rendered in direct opposition to Florida Citrus Commission spokeswoman/world-class homophobe Anita Bryant (Olivia, 1977); image courtesy of queermusicheritage.us

In addition, I really appreciate women’s music’s emphasis on historical context and continuation. In addition to their fandom of older artists like Reynolds, artists like Holly Near helped resurrect the career of artists like Ronnie Gilbert, once a member of a fairly obscure country band called The Weavers. By the 1970s, Gilbert had gotten her therapist’s license and come out. By connecting with a younger generation of listeners and working with younger artists, Gilbert helped to forge links between queer and straight women across age ranges and strengthened women’s historical significance in popular music.

As musical artists began developing their repertoire and labels like Olivia, Redwood, Goldenrod, and Ladyslipper took shape, more women forged careers in technical positions. Musician Linda Tillery was perhaps Olivia’s most noteworthy producer. In addition, women like Olivia Records’ co-founder Ginny Berson taught fans how to become concert producers so that her artists had gigs to play, which were usually run by female-only personnel. Some of these fans, notably Kristin Lems, started events like the National Women’s Music Festival in 1974 because no female artists were deemed good enough to play a local festival.

Linda Tillery behind the drums; image courtesy of stanford.edu

One thing festivals like the National Women’s Music Festival and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival emphasized was inclusion of women with disabilities. As a result, ASL interpreters like Susan Freundlich and Sherry Hicks developed reputations as instrumental virtuosos. They also allowed for many deaf women to experience music for the first time.

Sherry Hicks; image courtesy of aslfestival.com

While I find the notion of the ASL interpreter as instrumentalist to be fascinating, it cannot be overlooked that sign language is culturally developed and thus has regressive potential. In the documentary, Reagon talks about an interpretter tugging on her nostrils to sign the word “Africa” and requested she spell it out instead.

Another thing I was surprised about is where these festivals started to develop. They didn’t originate from the coasts, but instead in parts of the Midwest — particularly Michigan and Illinois. They also caught on in parts of the South. Thus, it can’t be overstated how brave these organizers were. Many of them had no professional experience putting together gigs and events. Several of them also had not yet come out to their communities and faced considerable opposition, if not outright threats to their livelihood.

The one big elephant in the room in this documentary is the transphobia that maligns feminist history. In addition to many festivals’ exclusionary women-born women policy, some feminists were far more invective against transgendered women. Janice Raymond wrote The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male in 1979, a book wherein she reportedly espoused that transgendered women were she-males, male rapists, and associated with Nazis. She also went after Olivia recording engineer (and UT faculty member) Sandy Stone, organizing a boycott of the label’s output.

Transphobia is an ugly presence in feminist history, but one that I think requires greater context besides the uncomfortable head nod and polite smile. Here’s hoping that future feminist historians confront it, learn from it, and work to correct it.

“You CANNOT make friends with the rock stars”: My like-hate relationship with Almost Famous

William Miller, Stillwater, and the Band-Aids, on the road; image courtesy of redriverautographs.wordpress.com

William Miller, Stillwater, and the Band-Aids, on the road; image courtesy of redriverautographs.wordpress.com

All right, folks. I’m home with the sniffles, so let’s roll up our sleeves for this one. I recently re-watched my VHS copy and am ready to get into it. At length. Double-album style. Watching the movie on video means I didn’t listen to any DVD commentaries to formulate my thoughts. And while I have seen the Untitled version, my opinions will mostly be generated from the theatrical release version. Keep this in mind reading on, but feel free to mix it up in the comments section.

Now, this is a movie that pushes and pulls me like few other. As I’ve grown older, depending on how I felt when I watched it, I waft somewhere between charitable introspection and vitriolic rejection, one time even going so far as drunkenly telling a friend who likes this movie to shut up (sorry, Leigh!).

I wasn’t always this way. When it first came out during my senior year of high school, I looooooooved it. I saw it with my best friend Jamie and a boy I would later regret dating. Jamie was the editor of the school newspaper. I made my extracurricular committment to choir, but wished I had room in my class schedule to write for The Clarion. I wanted to be William Miller, the fifteen-year-old journalist protagonist who fills in for director Cameron Crowe and his own (idealized?) experiences as a writer. Figuring I could catch up in college, I set my sights on UT’s journalism school. By graduation, I assumed I’d be working as a rock critic in New York City, perhaps following bands like Stillwater, the fictitious classic rock band based on The Allman Brothers Band that breaks (then promises to make) Miller’s career.

My hope of being a rock journalist was officially dashed the second time I was not hired as a writer for The Daily Texan‘s entertainment section. After this rejection, 19-year-old me reasoned that these fat cats were shills for the man with terrible taste in music. I might have even phrased it that way at the time. From here, I officially cast my lot with college radio.

It’s important to bring up music journalism, not only to burn on it out of bitter feelings of rejection. When this movie originally came out, it was a dangerous time for print publications like Rolling Stone and Spin, much like the early 70s was a dangerous time for rock music. 1973, the year this movie takes place, was a harbinger of the bloated, corporate, cool-hunting enterprise the mainstream music industry would become. By 2000, it had completely transformed into a deregulated, conglomerate behemoth, peddling a handful of marketable, palatable, and safe talent that could sell ancillary products and jack up the retail prices on those ancillary products, which the compact disc had become. Music listeners, irritated by ever-higher CD prices, began downloading illegally in earnest. Sometimes they were met with arrests and lawsuits. Sometimes those lawsuits were filed by the popular musicians they idolized. As a result of these actions, and some truly stupid strategies the music industry has used to push units, people are more incredulous of the music industry than ever.

It’s important to bring in the Internet and the ubiquity of digital technology too, as online communication affected print journalism. Throughout the 2000s, publications scrambled to keep up circulation and readership. Some were bought and sold to other conglomerates. Some turned from monthlies to quarterlies. Some drastically changed their content and marketing campaigns (the saddest one for me was Spin, a high school favorite that was Rolling Stone‘s cool, younger sibling; by the time I entered graduate school, it packaged itself as the hipster version of Us and lagged behind e-zines like Pitchfork and Tiny Mix Tapes in its coverage of new music). Some shilled out to reality TV (looking at you, Rolling Stone). Some simply folded.

Along with publications, staffs shrunk due to budget cuts. Some folks survived the fall-out. Rob Sheffield came into the field from the academy and penned a touching memoir. Eric Weisbard became part of the academy, currently an American Studies professor at the University of Alabama. Some folks, like Sarah Lewitinn and Chuck Klosterman, became cults of personality. But others didn’t fare as well. Sia Michel lost her position as Spin‘s editor-and-chief, though was hired on to be The New York Times‘ pop music editor. At some places, an entertainment staff was whittled down to one person, if there was a department at all.

Sarah Lewitinn, aka Ultragrrrl; image courtesy of daylife.com

Sarah Lewitinn, aka Ultragrrrl; image courtesy of daylife.com

With the implosion of print-based music journalism came the advent of e-zines like Pitchfork and, of course, blogs. These folks, for good or for bad, may shape what criticism will look like in this century. I, for one, do see some good to blog culture (barring, you know, my recent public involvement with it). The principle assets I have found with it are its immediacy and DIY ethic. I couldn’t get a staff position at the Texan. I wasn’t financially able to take an internship. In short, traditional modes of ascension in the field weren’t available to me or many others. But blogging allows (some) writers to continue researching, hone their craft, and figure out just why they’re so interested in their subject of analysis.

Of course, there are hazards to blogging. Our collective attention span for new sounds has diminished. Furthermore, a considerable amount of misinformation gets reported. However, while I’m tempted to attribute this to a lack of fluency with journalistic principles of investigating, reporting, and fact-checking, I don’t know if it’s that simple. I’d hasten to point out that blogging and traditional journalism are both vulnerable to errors, unfair coverage, unequal time, and other ethical issues in the wake of the 24-hour news cycle.

In short, I watch this movie and think three things: 1) I don’t know if William Miller would be a journalist today, as the publications he would want to work at might not be able to hire him, 2) I do think he’d be a blogger, as the fan-critic and musician-journalist binaries in media culture have been considerably blurred since the early 70s, and 3) while this movie seems quaint in its depiction of a just-booming American music industry, it still seems completely relevant, maybe even more so than when the movie was originally released.

So, you would think based on all of this fodder, I’d love this movie. But it’s not so simple and the movie itself is only partly at fault. A major issue I have with the movie isn’t so much to do with its gender politics as it is with the gender politics of its fanboys. I have heard too many fanboys talk about this movie with fervor, as if God touched Cameron Crowe’s camera. They’ll regale folks with abstruse bits of commentary from the Untitled version and quiz people on what songs like Stillwater’s “Love Thing” and “Fever Dog” are really about (I think love and kicking addiction, respectively). They are often humorless, especially if you point out any similarities they might have to Vic Munoz, the movie’s Led Zeppelin devotee. Oh, and they always love Led Zeppelin. Always.

But Alyx. Smelly zealot fanboys shouldn’t keep you from liking a movie, you say. The movie has a lot of good things going for it, you add. There’s even a lot of interesting female characters walking around, being smart and human and brave, you note. You might even say they’re more interesting than altruistic protagonist William Miller, you whisper emphatically. Fair points all. So, let’s do what Mary Kearney did when I watched this movie in her gender and rock undergrad class and run through the women and girls we meet in Miller’s coming-of-age story. Note that many of them are autonomous beings, free agents on the road:

1. The Band-Aids, especially one Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson in what many argue is her only credible screen performance). They are not groupies and consider themselves fans who are autonomous, exercise sexual agency, and are not disposable, though some musicians have trouble seeing them the way they see themselves.

1A. While Penny Lane is clearly the Band-Aid leader, I’ve always loved Sapphire (played by Fairuza Balk). Label it blonde antipathy or brunette solidarity, but it’s hard not to love this rough, mischievous, funny, and wise lady. Can you imagine the stories she could tell? She intimates with William’s mother about his travels on the road and how she should be proud of her son from a hotel phone. She’s responsible for orchestrating the orgy that takes William’s (who she calls “Opie“) virginity. She’s also the one who delivers the hard truth about Penny and William to guitarist Russell Hammond. And she’s the one who insists that younger groupies take birth control, appreciate the music, and quit eating all the steak at crafts’ services.

2. Alice Wisdom, a deejay whose playlist Lester Bangs rudely rejects. Now I don’t like The Doors either, Lester, but that doesn’t mean you should shout over her opinions and discredit her taste in music. Unless you’re actually discrediting the radio station’s taste in music, in which case the deejay’s role becomes even more compromised. And this woman is already compromised by having the regulatory whiskey-throated voice that all female deejays seem required to have or emulate.
3. High school girls running for gym class. Stillwater bassist Larry Fellows perks up at the view from the tour bus; Penny Lane gives them the finger, glad that she’s playing hooky. That she’s not them.
4. Fans. Some of whom are Band-Aids or groupies, most of whom are regular girls and women with jobs and parents.
5. Band wives and girlfriends. They were there before the band got signed, are not often there for the shenanigans on the road, and probably won’t be there after the break-ups and divorces.
6. A particularly shrill feminist stereotype of a Rolling Stone journalist billed as Alison the Fact Checker. Sadly, she probably has to be in order to be heard in staff meetings. Plus, wouldn’t you be pissy if you were trying to forge a career, were all-too-cognizant of sexism and misogyny, but also loved writing about popular music? This is a question I’ve always wanted to ask Ann Powers, Dream Hampton, and Lorraine Ali.

How do you do it, dream hampton?; image courtesy of thestartingfive.net

"How do you do it, Dream Hampton?"; image courtesy of thestartingfive.net

7. A singer-songwriter jamming with another singer-songwriter who appear to be modeled after Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. William sees them playing in a hotel room during his first visit at the Riot House.
8. William’s big sister, Anita. She has a turbulent relationship with her mother and leaves home to become a flight attendant, leaving her kid brother a haul of amazing records, including Joni Mitchell’s Blue. She even gives him some good advice about how to listen to The Who’s Tommy that seems to have a lasting impression.
9. And, of course, William’s awesome, anti-establishment, overprotective mother Elaine, who is a college professor in San Diego. She is also the family matriarch, and probably was even before her husband died. Besides Lester, Ms. Miller is one of the few rebels. They both hold the distinction of being the only people who recognizes that rock culture, and its attendant cheap thrills and promises, is just another corporate enterprise.

Now, now. The dudes are interesting too, you might say. And masculinity is a discursive minefield here. So let’s walk through it. Let’s make like the movie and use William Miller to do this.
1. Miller himself is a soft-eyed, feminine boy played by then-unknown Patrick Fugit. He is hopelessly in love with Penny, a girl who may be his age but is out of his depth and hopelessly in love with someone else.

William Miller and his quest for truth; image courtesy of blog.lib.umn.edu

William Miller and his quest for truth; image courtesy of blog.lib.umn.edu

2. Billy Crudup’s Russell Hammond is the talented, aloof, and cowardly lead guitarist for Stillwater. He’s technically better than his bandmates, and is quick to hover it over them. He takes William under his wing because he’s a fan, only to dismiss him when Bob Dylan makes an appearance at Max’s Kansas City. He also nearly ruins William’s journalistic integrity when his own credibility is on the line. He’s also in love with Penny, but more in love with becoming a rock star. He’s not so in love with his wife, Leslie. He loves himself more than anyone, and hates himself for it.
3. Stillwater lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) feels differently toward Leslie. He also has considerable animosity toward Hammond, whose emergent fame and skill is threatening to eclipse him and the rest of the band.
4. Bassist Larry Fellows and drummer Ed Vallencourt round out the band. Fellows (played by singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, who I named my cat after) seems only interested in barbeque and high school girls. Vallencourt (played by John Fedevich) is silent through most of the movie, until he announces that he’s gay during a traumatic airplane ride.
5. Dick Roswell (Noah Taylor) and Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon) manage the band. Fellows has been with them for most of their career. Hope convinces the band to cash in and sell out, most symbolically by trading their bus for a jet. They will regret this decision.
6. Jann Wenner and Ben Fong-Torres, Rolling Stone‘s respective editor-and-chief and senior editor, who serve as William’s bosses. Note the Wenner is gay, though at this time in his career, he was married to a woman named Jane. They would go on to have three children before divorcing in 1995. I haven’t read anything on Wenner, but am fascinated to learn how he negotiated all of this. Note also that Fong-Torres is Chinese American and one of the few people of color in both the movie and perhaps the emerging mainstream rock music industry. Note also the “Torres” surname, which his father adopted, dropping “Fong,” in order to pose as a Mexican in order to be granted U.S. citizenship while Chester Arthur’s Chinese Exclusion Act was still on the books. The family later kept both surnames.

Stillwater, on the cover of Rolling Stone; image courtesy of jeffdurling.com

Stillwater, on the cover of Rolling Stone; image courtesy of jeffdurling.com

But William doesn’t really have much in common with Stillwater. He wants to be them, but is in actual fact a music geek. Two like-minded male characters empathize, and share a relationship that is at once classically masculine in its indexical organization of rock’s ephemera and, at the same time, feminine in their romantic, homoerotic obsessive fandom.
1. Lester Bangs, William’s mentor, played by the formidable Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is one of the main reasons I’ll be seeing Pirate Radio. Reportedly, his scenes were filmed while he had the flu. Bangs hates what rock journalism has become.

Lester Bangs imparting life lessons to William Miller; image courtesy of playground.chronicleblogs.com

Lester Bangs imparting life lessons to William Miller; image courtesy of playground.chronicleblogs.com

2. Vic Munoz, played by longtime Apatow mainstay Jay Baruchel. He’s the Zeppelin fan who follows the band everywhere, clutches a marker frontman Robert Plant once held, and wears his “Have you seen the bridge?” t-shirt at all times.

I should point out, however, that the girls index too. Penny Lane may not want William to take notes during Stillwater concerts, but that doesn’t mean that she, her peers, or William’s sister Anita, can’t rattle off band line-ups, industry players, and song lyrics.

And lest we forget that William actually forges strong relationships with his sister, his mother, and the Band-Aids. While Sapphire, Polexia, and the gang seduce William, they also believe in him, intimate secrets with him, and provide him support, though they sometimes treat him as a minion and less as an equal.

I should also point out, since I opined that Miller doesn’t have much in common with Stillwater, that he does have an interesting relationship with Hammond nonetheless. Miller, a kid brother with an older sister, doesn’t seem to have any male friends or role models before he takes Bangs’s assignment to cover Black Sabbath for Creem, a band for whom Stillwater is opening and launches Miller’s almost-too-good-to-be-true feature assignment for Rolling Stone.

I wouldn’t necessarily categorize Hammond as a friend or role model. Perhaps he’s better suited for an older brother position. At first, Miller looks up to Hammond, calling his guitar-playing “incendiary” and trying (largely in vain) to emulate his slingin’, ‘stached bravado. But, despite a Band-Aid orgy (controlled by the women who believe that “Opie must die”), Miller clearly doesn’t have that kind of swagger. He also doesn’t seem to want it, seeing Hammond’s cowardice beneath it. He also recognizes the irony of such inauthentic displays of machismo and ego in a form supposedly as authentic, romantic, and pure as rock is supposed to be, and is quickly unbecoming. Perhaps he also notices the rigid gender roles and chauvinism that inform the supposed gains of free love and the sexual revolution. This hypocrisy, along with the band’s quick rejection of real fans for industry success and the promise of rock mythology, make Miller able to put Hammond and his band mates in their place during the climactic plane scene. His honesty and integrity also earns him their trust, especially Hammond’s, who finally grants him a real interview at the end of the movie.

As an aside, if Hammond is Miller’s imperfect older brother, he steps right into the role by sassing Ms. Miller when he first talks to her on the phone, immediately snapping into a “yes ma’am, no ma’am” routine when she admonishes his behavior and values.

Miller’s character also wins the respect of Penny Lane, even when she’s ignoring the icky realities of seeing yourself as a fan but being treated as a groupie, as disposable as a real Band-Aid.

Note that it doesn’t win Lane’s affections, at least not physically. She may be too hard for or scared of Miller’s feelings (which are announced, unfortunately, in a scene where Miller kisses Lane, who just overdosed on Quaaludes). She may not be ready for rejecting her own rock star mythology in order to be truly intimate with someone (though she suggests she might when she tells Miller that she came into this world as one Lady Goodman). Maybe doing so would make her the typical teen she (and William’s mother) see little value in becoming. Maybe not consummating this relationship suggests they have no interest in typical interactions with one another.

Yet Miller’s and Lane’s relationship, which seems built on male fantasy, is an issue I have with this movie. I don’t get what the fuss is about, frankly. I understand that Lane is pretty, savvy, and well-traveled, but don’t understand why Miller has such a crush on her, primarily because I don’t understand how loving a band’s music leads you toward doing their ironing backstage while the boy you love in the band can’t be bothered to love you back. More importantly, I don’t know who she really is. Maybe the self-mythology is part of what prevents me (and certainly Miller) from getting close. Maybe the challenge of trying to find out who the real Penny Lane is warrants enough of a fascinating exercise for Miller. And maybe it isn’t any of our business who Lane really is. But I sort of wonder if she’s perfectly matched with Hammond, a man who wants desperately to be the myth he’s created for himself. Maybe this suggests that both of them have something in common with Don Draper. Here’s one scene where I think Lane, alone after a concert, drops the masquerade (note that the scene follows Stillwater’s treacherous meeting with super-manager Hope).

Admittedly, perhaps my problem resides in Kate Hudson’s performance. Perhaps I want her not to channel her mother, herself a manic pixie dream girl of this era, so much. Perhaps I’m projecting Goldie Hawn’s presence and ignoring how Hudson is making this role her own. I do think Hudson does a good job balancing Lane’s contrasts and contradictions, perhaps a better job than Kirsten Dunst (who almost got this role, but was cast in Crowe’s Elizabethtown instead) would.

And I do think I’m being unfair in my dismissal of Kate Hudson and Penny Lane. Because I think my real problem, as it usually is with Crowe’s movies, is the director’s unfortunate habit of crutching on the magic of pop music. Admittedly, this might be a hard habit for a music geek director to break, but it has kept me from enjoying his other movies (including, yes, Say Anything). And it’s probably contradictory for a music fan not to like pop music playing such a pronounced role in Crowe’s work. To me, however, Crowe’s use of pop music suggests the necessity of delicate application. Because I hate how he uses Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in one of the movie’s big reconciliatory moments, as its obvious that he is making the case for how pop music’s universality heals all psychic wounds. When Lane tells Miller that he is home, all I can think is “fucking duh.”

While I feel like the movie’s score adds to the treacle (especially during the scene when Miller runs with Lane’s departing plane), I do admire Cameron Crowe’s ongoing collaborations with wife and Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson. We’d do well to remember Wilson’s rock legend status, score work, and Crowe’s relationship with Wilson when making sexist assumptions about Sofia Coppola’s relationship with Phoenix’s Thomas Mars, who is working on her next movie, Somewhere. We might also like to keep it in mind when thinking about Karen O’s involvement in ex-boyfriend Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.

Going back to Crowe’s unfortunate flirtations with the obvious for my closing remarks, he does make a few other points in this movie in highlighter yellow that I love anyway. So much so that I’ve shaped my life around them. In the interest of full disclosure, I will share them now, suggesting that sometimes flirtations with the obvious are essential and humane.

1) The introductory scene between Bangs and Miller, when Bangs talks about staying up all night, writing about music. Whether or not he was high on cough syrup and speed or the tomes he devoted to The Faces or John Coltrane were dribble didn’t matter. The objective, as William knows well, is “just to fuckin’ write.” It’s an objective I know well too. It’s a key reason why I put this blog together in the first place, and I’m certainly not alone.
2) Lane has a great line as well, one that has stayed with me as I age. I’m a firm believer in the advice she gives Miller when she drives them to the Riot House: “if you ever get lonely, you just go to the record store and visit your friends.” The comfort I have found in record stores cannot be overstated, and I only hope that, as I get older, at least a few of them don’t get completely mowed down to make way for more lucrative businesses. I might have to stay in a city that shares kinship with Austin to assure this, but I think it’s worth it. I’d rather live in a city that appreciates the cultural and communal value of record stores over a city that only sees value in their market returns.

After all this, I believe Almost Famous to be an interesting and challenging movie at times marred by its idealism, sentimentality, and emphasis on one very lucky boy’s experience following around a band and writing down what happened. Thus, it’s a movie I keep coming back to, even if I don’t feel the need to replace the tape.

Lady Gaga attempts to queer the hard sell

Lady Gaga sexing the dead for Out Magazine; image courtesy of out.com

Lady Gaga sexing the dead for Out Magazine; image courtesy of out.com

. . . So we meet again, Steffie. How are you?

So, I thought I’d briefly mention Lady Gaga’s recent cover story for Out Magazine, which further establishes her recent fascination with monsters and horror (though not, sadly, Muppets). More importantly, it aligns her with a queer audience and as one of the tribe (an extension of an argument my friend Alex Cho made in a column for Flow earlier this month).

Ellen Von Unwerth’s pictorial is interesting — I’ve been a fan since I first saw her cover of Hole’s Live Through This. I especially find the photographs of her wrapped in medical gauze interesting, as it revisits the fixations she has with death and frailty that she brought to light in her music video for “Paparazzi.”

Lady Gaga on the cover of Out seems like a pretty big deal, but one I’m sure is not met without some controversy. While I’m not livid at her being on the cover (the way I was when lipstick chic interloper Katy Perry made the publication’s year-end cover last winter), I hedge. I hedge for a few reasons, the least of which has to do with hailing a queer audience while doing so with a normatively sexy female body, as Lady Gaga did when she conjured up the bath house in Rolling Stone‘s recent Hot Issue.

Lady Gaga on the cover of the Rolling Stone Hot Issue; image courtesy of insider.com

Lady Gaga on the cover of the Rolling Stone Hot Issue; image courtesy of insider.com

Principally, I still wonder how queer — not how queerable — Lady Gaga really is. Her bisexuality, which has been well-reported, is not disclosed here, but referred to, perhaps as a given. I do find disconcerting the lack of qualification for an earlier comment that her attraction to women is purely physical (presumably in opposition to men, who she doesn’t make this distinction for). For me, this seems antithetical to how I’ve always defined the philosophy behind bisexuality — i.e., that sex categories and binaries eclipse a person’s romantic, sexual, physical, emotional, and/or cerebral attractions to another person.

And while I imagine the feature was written before Lady Gaga discussed in a recent interview about the double-standard between men and women and rock and pop before immediately dismissing any claim to being a feminist, I would like some acknowledgement of how problematic this moment was.

Also, I find the constant speculation about Lady Gaga being a man or a hermaphrodite interesting, if not a bit limiting. While she’s enjoyed and encouraged much of this rumor-mongering, I’d be more impressed if she incorporated a more subcultural mode of queer address — say, tagging — or went the route of Marilyn Manson and employed prosthetics as part of her costuming. Sure, the appendage would be blurred in UsWeekly, but how awesome would it be to see a female pop star step out of a limousine with a penis peaking out of her avant-garde party dress?

What I wonder about this cover — indeed, Lady Gaga’s success as a queer icon — is how she might be more specifically aligned with a gay male fan culture and how this may speak to the fundamental differences between identity politics within the LGBT community, as well as within factions inside the current iteration of feminism (or, ugh, post-feminism). Because while this feminist thinks that Lady Gaga’s performance and cultural positioning is interesting (and problematic), it also still has very clear limits.