So, the cool kids already knew back in 1995 that the answer to the “Oasis or Blur” question was “Pulp.” In 1995, I certainly knew I was supposed to like Sheffield’s underdogs who rose from years of obscurity to deliver “Common People,” which is all the more relevant today as trust-fund kids remove the band’s class consciousness to ape their deadpan sensibility and ironic sartorial statements, which seem to be modeled after what European teenagers were wearing in the 80s according to my high school French textbooks. I did like them, and continued to after their 2002 split.
But if forced to chose one or the other, I’d take Blur without question. Their lyrics were clever, their melodies were interesting, and their influences more varied. Plus, the members looked like a nerdy straight girl’s version of a boy band. I liked frontman Damon Albarn, who had a snaggle tooth and a vaguely simian cuteness that comic artist Jamie Hewlett had to be tapping into when he was designing Gorillaz with Albarn. There’s palpable class tension in my preferences, to be sure. Blur were the London-born mockney art school boys Jarvis Cocker was vituperating in “Common People.”
Oasis, on the other hand, were doggedly working class Mancs. They also had no musical vision past Lennon and McCartney. Their lyrics, absenting principle lyricist Noel Gallagher’s dyslexia, were of the worst variety of rubbish: the purposeful kind. The Gallagher brothers also forged a rivalry with Blur for publicity and that their episode of Behind the Music confirms they’re despicable people. I like “Cigarettes and Alcohol” well enough. I enjoy singing “Morning Glory” at karaoke, but my enjoyment of the song completely resides in shouting the lyrics, a singular joy I also bestow upon Girls’ “Hellhole Ratrace” and Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Song Against Sex.” I have no use for these songs as listening experiences — I merely enjoy shouting along with them, largely to drown out the recorded sound. It’s an icky, selfish joy.
But if you’re angling for true Britpop allegiances, I’m closer to siding with Courtney Love on this one. Apparently some time in the mid-90s (possibly during Lollapalooza ’95?), she said that the future of rock music was “Elastica-r-r.” While history and personal drama unfortunately proved that mantle untenable, Elastica were my Britpop band.
I remember buying the band’s self-titled debut at some big box chain in 1995 because I saw them in Seventeen and heard “Connection” and wanted to be a member. I particularly responded to frontwoman Justine Frischmann’s androgynous look and too-cool persona, later finding out that she co-founded proto-Britpop band Suede and was dating Albarn. I already had the short dark hair and wore loose black clothes. I used dry sarcasm as a defense mechanism for being shy and chubby. In my mind, I was as good as in.
The clerk responded to my purchase with incredulity. Perhaps he found them disposable. I’m not sure if the guy was one of those boorish types who think girls shouldn’t play guitars. Their status at the time as a buzz band could have predicted their short shelf life, as assuredly it did for all-male bands like the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, and countless others. At around this time, shoegazer bands like Ride were aping the Black Crowes. A year later, peer act Lush would release their final album, Lovelife, which attempted to recast the group in a more contemporary image.
Shaking off the record store attendant’s rebuke, I took the record home and discovered a series of short, spiky songs brimming with frank recollections of a nightlife with friends that teems with the possibilities of bad sex and great sex recounted from a distinctly female voice. It was an exciting sound I was just starting to relate to. Revisiting the album this past week, I’m stunned by how fresh it still sounds. But when I was closer to Rory Gilmore’s age, I was just beginning to understand the frisson of sharing closed quarters with a boy you probably shouldn’t be with.
I wonder if the record store clerk and other folks of his station didn’t like Elastica because they knew the band ripped off bands like the Stranglers and Wire, the latter a lauded post-punk band then still pretty obscure in the states. I’d come to discover that the band lifted a riff from the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes” for “Waking Up” and Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba” for “Connection,” among others.
Frankly, I don’t care. Britpop could be defined as a post-modern response to Great Britian’s pop legacy. A band like Blur pilfered from a variety of influences, eventually branching out to American indie rock. Albarn was particularly influenced by Pavement, whose frontman Stephen Malkmus apparently hooked up with Frischmann at some point. A former acquaintance once referred to Malkmus as indie rock’s Peter Fonda. I only abide by this statement as a counter to Love’s pronouncement that Malkmus was indie rock’s Grace Kelly, which sounds great but makes little sense. However, I do think it’s interesting that Frischmann mentions the actor in “Car Song.” I interpret Malkmus responding to the Anglo interest with “We Dance,” a song that sounds like Suede’s Brett Anderson could have sung it.
Oasis swung for the masses with the Beatles, a safe move because everyone steal from them. Elastica appropriated punk’s terse songcraft and tinny production and was penalized for essentially having the same taste as discerning record store clerks. But if you take out the riff to “Connection,” you still have a good song with smart, funny lyrics. If you take all the reference in “Don’t Look Back In Anger” or “Wonderwall,” you don’t have much else left. This isn’t to say that the members of Wire shouldn’t have been compensated. Just as I think the Rolling Stones deserved to collect every penny from the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” which sampled a classical arrangement of “The Last Time,” so do I think Wire and the Stranglers deserved credit. I just think, in the name of credibility, swiping from Wire is hardly a big deal. Bands with dudes in them do it all the time.
I also think my indifference toward Elastica’s musical plagiarism stems from the ubiquitous presence sampling has in my listening practices. I grew up on hip hop and probably justify the band’s decisions through that lens. Thus I’m also interested in Frischmann’s connection to former roommate Maya Arulpragasm, who would later become M.I.A. Then a filmmaker, Arulpragasm created the cover art for The Menace and directed the music video for “Mad Dog God Dam.”
(BTW, Robert Christgau agrees with me about The Menace being underrated. This is one of the few times we’ve agreed on anything. Even when we have, as with Sleater-Kinney’s output, he fixates on sex and Corin Tucker’s voice as the manifestation of the female orgasm.)
Arulpragasm would later vacation with Frischmann and write “Galang,” the song which catapulted her to pop stardom. If that’s the legacy Frischmann’s known for as she continues to retreat from public life, that’s a nice consolation prize. But I do hope people remember her band’s own limited output, regardless of its source material.
So, before I go into my post about Anna Sui’s Gossip Girl-inspired Target collection that launched last summer, I’d like to first announce something totally superfluous but strangely encapsulating. I am down to the dregs of my Anna Sui Dolly Girl perfume. My mom bought it for me several birthdays ago and it is a delightfully flirty fragrance that I only wear when I need to feel publically sexy. If I went to your birthday party, going-away party, theme party, house-warming, wedding, or any other BIG EVENT, this is what I smelled like before I got sweaty and/or drunk. Priced at $35 and lasting over several years, it has definitely served me well.
Delightfully flirty and publically sexy seems to be Gossip Girl‘s chief M.O. The CW teen drama, created by O.C. mastermind Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, is now in its third season and based on the popular tween book series of same name by Cecily von Ziegesar. It focuses on the soapy, bitchy, frothy excesses of a gaggle of teenaged haves and (to a lesser extent) have-nots and their parents in New York City. Importantly, its wardrobe is in essence a principal character, largely due to costume designer Eric Daman’s keen eye for established and emergent talent in contemporary fashion. The show has launched once-fledging talent like Blake Lively, who has appeared in pictorials for Vanity Fair and on the cover of Vogue. It has also scored previously unknown actresses like Leighton Meester into a spokeswoman deal with Reebok.
The show has proven itself bit of a taste-maker. How else to explain why this “silly” teen soap (with a considerable hip twentysomething following) got the coop of having Christian Dior’s Miss Dior Chérie advertisement air for the first time during the “Bonfire of the Vanity” episode? Oh, and let’s not overlook who directed the spot — Ms. Sofia Coppola, herself a hipster icon, fashionista, erstwhile clothing designer, sometimes design collaborator, and friend to folks like Marc Jacobs and, yes, Anna Sui.
BTW, I remember this really interesting feature Seventeen did back in 1993 with Sui, Coppola, and friends Zoe Cassavettes and Donovan Leitch, but cannot find it on the Interwebz. If curious, please contact your local library. When you find it, note the crocheted shawls, chokers, matte lipstick, and other hallmarks of early-90s fashion they’re wearing that are now making a comeback.
Bringing publications like Seventeen into the discussion make inevitable the show’s fanbase and target audience, who tend to be pre-teen and tween girls. Thus, there’s probably a fair amount of aspiration that can be marketed toward (a euphemistic term for “exploited”). And while I feel kinda icky about the proceedings, especially since Sui’s Gossip Girl-inspired togs tend to be mid-range ($30-$70), I at least can recognize that these clothes are more affordable than, say, Louis Vuitton, or even some of the garments sold at mall retailers like Express, Banana Republic, and The Limited.
The market-driven desire to dress like a gossip girl suggests a particular cultural power, perhaps one not since seen since Carrie Bradshaw became a game-charging sartorialist (and Sarah Jessica Parker became her). The Gossip Girl cast’s on- and off-screen wardrobe (and, in Taylor Momsen’s case, the merging of the two) has also provided fodder for fashion blogs like Go Fug Yourself, much in the same way that producer Josh Schwartz’s name-making franchise The O.C. Gossip Girl has even taken its fashion-plate status toward self-reflexive ends. In the season two episode, “The Serena Also Rises,” a fashion show seating chart appears on screen, with Fug Girls Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks’s names on it.
Thus, the show, like other Schwartz-helmed programs, is known for its intertextuality. So it seems fitting that a television show — particularly one as creative as marketing and distributing itself in an increasingly digitized and convergent media climate that young women have been especially adept at traversing, would try marketing its show through clothes. It’s a move with a bit of recent history (Grey’s Anatomy for New York & Company) and a bit of current cross-promotional play (Mad Men for Banana Republic, which Jonathan Gray has critiqued).
But having Sui team up with Target to design for Gossip Girl it is interesting, and smart in terms of the show’s investment in fashion, both as an industry and as a bridging cultural practice. Like Gossip Girl, Sui’s work has been characterized by her ongoing interests in popular music. Gossip Girl‘s music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas defines the show by its of-the-moment “indie” sound, which in turn gets referenced, idolized, and critiqued at length by the show’s characters in much the same way it was on The O.C.. Likewise, Sui is often inspired by popular music — particularly 60s garage rock, 90s Britpop, riot grrrl, and mod culture — and incorporates the attitude and aesthetic into her designs.
Both the show and designer have a preoccupation with the 90s — for the show, it is an era that commercialized alternative rock and, for hip dad and former rocker Rufus Humphrey, it is an albatross. Sui might feel similarly about the era, which was her zenith period and was not repeated in the 2000s when peer designers like Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and Stella McCartney made the career move to be house designers for Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, and Chloé, respectively. Sui instead followed in the footsteps of designers like Betsey Johnson and continued to cultivate her brand from a slightly lower tier, opening boutiques around the world and continuing to create new collections, but largely outside of the elite world of haute couture. Likewise, Gossip Girl is not a big player on television with colossal ratings. It’s not on a big-four network or on a prestige cable channel like HBO.
(Note: Obviously, if one wants to read into Sui’s professional position her marginalized status as one of the few Asian American female clothing designers, there is ample room for this. Admittedly, I have not done so here, but would be very interested and encouraged by what others might have to say on the matter.)
But both designer and show have cultivated their kitschy, hip brands toward less-travelled though no-less-populist ends. Thus, it makes sense that Sui would link up with Gossip Girl (apparently, her favorite television show), and that they would link up with Target, a big box chain with affordable prices, a cooler and more ethical socioeconomic reputation than Wal-Mart, and a relationship with designers like Isaac Mizrahi, as well as M.I.A.’s former roommate Luella Bartley and Michelle Obama’s go-to guy Thakoon Panichgul who, like Sui, have created limited edition collections for the retailer.
Now, having already discussed the problematic nature of fixing a price range and marketing a clothing line toward an intended audience in such a blatant way, I’d like to close by casting a critical eye toward the clothes themselves.
One issue I have with the collection is how focused it is on dresses and skirts. While supposedly each outfit is designed with a particular gossip girl style in mind (specifically Serena’s boho chic, Blair’s classic glamour, Jenny’s runway punk, and clearly cast-aside Vanessa’s vaguely ethnic intellectual look), all of these items can easily be paired together because of their overt, unproblematized femininity.
Another issue, and one that Target faces with all limited collections, is whether big-name designers cater toward in-between or fat body types. The clothes’ sizes range from extra-small to extra-large, leaving out women and girls who are bigger. What is more, while these clothes appear to be well-made, many of the designs in Sui’s collection seems to principally flatter a long, lean body type. As a short, curvy girl who wears a size four (which, if we recall The Devil Wears Prada, is the new size six), I would have to belt pretty much all of these dresses so they wouldn’t look like gunnysacks on me (that is, the ones that aren’t so short that they would fail to flatter my thickly proportioned thighs). And don’t even get me started on how stumpy I’d look in a pair of checkered, bowed pedal pushers. NEXT!
So, while interesting in many other ways, I feel like Sui’s collection suggests that only certain shapes and classes get to be gossip girls when it comes to fashion. I don’t think we needed Target to tell us that, but I hope it inspires other women and girls to either make the styles their own or, better yet, start picking up the needle and thread and putting their own outfits together.