In her first appearance on Saturday Night Live’s season finale last May, St. Vincent performed “Digital Witness.” Apart from being struck by how great she sounded (more of an exception than a rule for SNL), I found it compelling how singer Annie Clark harnessed the televisual potential of her stage show by referencing her nervous tics in director Chino Moya’s “Digital Witness” video. In the clip, Clark punctuates the ends of phrases by stiffly nodding her head to the side as green-, yellow-, and blue- replicants march, tap, and roll pencils in a Futurist office space and business park.
On SNL, Clark and bassist/keyboardist Toko Yasuda elaborated upon the video’s dance routine—created by choreographer Annie-B Parson—so that it scaled for both television and the stage. Their movements were more exaggerated. They used dance as an opportunity to interact with each other and their instruments. Clark also took her pulse and performed other gestures that weren’t in the clip. The performance simultaneously recalled collaborator David Byrne’s “big suit” dance to “Girlfriend Is Better” in Stop Making Sense and the Supremes’ Ed Sullivan Show appearances. In truth, you can’t have one without the other. That’s probably why Byrne also commissioned dances from Parson. After all, punk bands learned how to dress alike and write short songs by playing along to the Shangri-Las and the Crystals.
St. Vincent’s choreography visualizes the song’s commentary on technology’s role in turning existence into a series of naturalized, performative gestures and interactions. Clark’s jerky execution suggests that these routines can cause us to short-circuit, particularly when we buckle under the restraint of isolated tasks or when people don’t notice that we’re doing them. Yet there’s also a ritual to mundane activities like checking email, browsing through a reader feed, and refreshing Facebook—things I do while sipping my morning coffee.
Though these gestures are not explicitly religious (though they could be, given Clark’s thematic convictions), they appear weightier and more deliberate when represented through choreography. In this way, St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” dance recalls EMA’s routine for her apocalyptic 2010 single, “California,” a place vulnerable to a Biblical reckoning precipitated by menstruation, youth, loss, paranoia, and other human follies rescued by the divine. Through dance, Erika M. Anderson articulates the slippage between the sacred and the profane. In her hands, a weapon becomes the cross.
In Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance, Kiri Miller advocates the pedagogical utility of video games like Guitar Hero, as well as online instructional videos. By mobilizing “genres of participation,” a concept first advanced by cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito in her co-authored book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, Miller convincingly argues that gameplay can help users develop their creative and technical skills as musicians. It also problematizes neat distinctions between amateur and professional instrumentalists.
I’m not sure how to apply “genres of participation” to choreography. I can. Learning to perform Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance requires more than rote memorization. You have to be able to count. You have to be able to contort your body in time to the music, anticipating every turn and kick. Dancing as part of a crowd also requires sensitivity not just to the recording, but to ensemble’s internal rhythm. Too much spin or stretch in one dancer’s steps can ruin the illusion of uniformity. But there’s also virtuosity at work in dance that blurs easy distinctions between who originated the routine and who imitated it. I remember seeing two female cheerleaders face off to Britney Spears’ “Oops!…I Did It Again” at a high school Sadie Hawkins dance. By the first chorus, I was so mesmerized by their precision and skill that I had trouble identifying where the Britney on television ended and the Brittany in the cafeteria began.
Jackson and Spears’ dance routines clearly exist as genres of participation. Fans demonstrate their commitment to pop idols by replicating their moves. For some, such performances also serve as an indication of their own talents. Spears became a performer by playing along with Michael Jackson. Historically, dance is how fans are perceived to participate in pop music. As scholars like Norma Coates have persuasively claimed, rock was legitimated through discourses that removed the genre from feminized leisure activities like dancing and situated it within hegemonically masculine cultural practices like criticism, collecting, and instrument instruction. In order for rock to function as a genre of participation, you could pick up a typewriter, a record, or a guitar. You couldn’t get down.
At the risk of making yet another facile comparison between contemporary concept-oriented female recording artists and Kate Bush, the gestural choreography on “Digital Witness” and “California” recalls how Bush used her face, hands, and body to represent Heathcliff and Cathy’s desire on “Wuthering Heights.” Of course, such comparisons require us to consider how Bush’s decision to train under renowned choreographer Lindsay Kemp might serve as indication that she first became “Kate Bush” by playing along to David Bowie.
Ultimately, what I find compelling about St. Vincent and EMA’s choreography is how it opens up rock as a genre of participation by reclaiming dance as one of its essential features. Most of St. Vincent and EMA’s fans might still show their appreciation by picking up guitars and raising their voices, which is great. I’ve never seen people dance along to “Digital Witness” or “California” in concert. I haven’t bothered to learn the routines myself, which I should reconsider. But as a fan, I cannot deny the importance of those gestures, what they mean to their corresponding songs, and how it allows fans different ways to play along with their heroines.
There seemed to be a lot of me floating around on the Internet over the past few days. I thought I’d write a brief post on that, as these things I’m doing or saying may matter to you. Maybe in doing so, the “I” can be about “us”.
-I was recently interviewed by Romantic Friendship, a great queer music podcast series. sashay and c-wag did an episode on the queer and feminist subtext of girl groups. Jacqueline Warwick and I were guests. Check it out. Thanks to Lynn at Homoground for recommending me after she did an interview with them.
-Shelley Seale at CultureMap also interviewed me for a brief feature on Austin music bloggers. Though I’m not based in Austin anymore, I thought I’d take the opportunity to plug an event I’m putting on with YoungCreature and Homoground.
-Which brings me to my final point. I worked with members of YoungCreature, Homoground, and many other talented people to put on Get Off the Internet. It’s an unofficial SXSW show that seeks to give greater visibility to queer and/or feminist artists and create a politicized communal space for queer folks, feminists, queer feminists, friends, and allies of every spectrum around music. It’s going down on Wednesday, 3/14 at Cheer Up Charlie’s from 12-6 p.m. I’m unbelievably proud to be a part of this. This was a real DIY group effort and we put together an amazing line-up. Even though I can’t be there physically (Madison’s spring break is in early April, I’m of limited financial means), I’m very much there in spirit. And I want you to be there physically. This was our first time working together on this kind of project. With the help of your wiggling booties, loud voices, and kind ears, maybe this can be a project we can develop and carry on in the future.
It’s my hope that today’s future ax-slingers who are currently spending hours in their bedrooms learning to play the guitar are regarding Kaki King, Marnie Stern, and Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox with the godhead status previously designated to Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eddie Van Halen. It’s also of course my hope that these instrumentalists are transgender and cisgender boys and girls.
I’ve been meaning to focus on Cox for a while and felt that the late September release of Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest was just the opportunity. I don’t have much to say on the album itself, other than it’s consistent with the band and its leader’s beautiful, unsettling output. The influence of girl group pop, Roy Orbison, psych rock, shoegaze, drone, Stereolab and other abstruse curios fetishized by music nerds are still present, culminating in hazy indie pop bolstered by formidable guitar chops. The music isn’t as twinged with the vaguely Lynchian erotic tension of the group’s earlier efforts, particularly Cryptograms, which recalls my experiences driving through the densely wooded areas of their native Atlanta. Steep inclines and tortuous roads determine your course and thickets of pine trees spear the sky. The austerity is breathtaking and ominous.
The proceedings here are deceptively breezy and once again, Cox’s fandom is foregrounded. Neither of these developments are especially new, as Cox worked with Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier on Logos, an album from his solo project Atlas Sound. Both tracks are indicative of his thematic investment with childhood and struggle. His collaboration with Sadier on “Quick Canal,” Logos‘ centerpiece, is particularly compelling as Cox convincingly approximates the late Mary Hansen’s vocal style to imagine a version of one of his favorite bands where a deceased member remains alive by using himself as her vessel. Paired with a profound lyric about trading the assumption of inheriting wisdom by providence for the reality learned with age of enlightenment coming from a balance of success and failure and it remains one of his more redoubtable artistic statements.
However, there remains a productive sadness to Cox’s sound in both projects’ understanding of nostalgia. There is also often a poignant connectedness to Cox’s idols. This album came about in part because of Cox’s fandom of B-52s guitarist and fellow Georgian Ricky Wilson, an innovative and overlooked instrumentalist who was a casualty of AIDS when Cox was three and it was cruelly dismissed as gay cancer.
I invoke all of this then to situate Cox’s particular relationship to indie rock. In tandem with emulating his instrumental mastery, I hope younger musicians are also picking up on his queer, complicated corporeality and making connections to how it informs his work.
First, his body. Much discussion has been made of Cox’s stretched frame that indicates an earlier diagnosis of Marfan syndrome. Some critics, like Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan, have noted thematic connections. Frankly, you don’t even have to go that far to find it. Many of Cox’s songs deal directly with the summer in his youth where he was stuck in a hospital undergoing multiple corrective surgeries.
I appreciate how confrontational Cox is about his body on stage, in song, and through his blog. At times, he’s provoked ableist discomfort from critics and concert-goers who wish the skinny white guy would obscure his form with baggy clothes. Recently I had a conversation with my friend Curran about homophobic panic toward male hipsters, which may manifest itself in people seeking confirmation with questions like “hipster or gay?” or more menacing circumstances. Curran is himself a slender out man and prefers skinny jeans primarily because they best fit his body. However, he is also keenly aware that his wardrobe confirms his orientation and thus makes as mundane an activity as walking around his neighborhood a politically charged act. While we may live in a sartorial moment where huskier men can wear v-neck tees and tight pants, slight men remain under scrutiny for not abiding by normative ideas around masculine virility.
I cannot confirm if Cox is gay. I read that he identifies as asexual alongside journalism that labels him as either gay or bisexual. The ambiguity and fluidity of his identification may actually be productive. What I can aver is that a) Cox is not straight, b) he is gender queer, and c) he isn’t interested in making anyone comfortable about it.
Perhaps we can read Atlas Sound and Deerhunter’s efforts alongside the more assimilable contributions from peer indie act Grizzly Bear. I’m pleased we live in a moment where a band like Grizzly Bear can move units by invoking men’s chorus and not shy away from its queer implications. I’m thrilled that the band’s founder, Ed Droste, writes and sings from a homosexual male perspective. Naturally, I’m ecstatic that both bands’ compositional emphasis on the electric guitar may distance past associations with it as the manifestation of heterosexual male desire. But Grizzly Bear’s efforts are pretty and I’m energized by figures like Cox and his band who like to warp those exteriors.
At the risk of making a tenuous connection, I’d like to close with potentially connecting Cox to recent discourse around the “It Gets Better” campaign. I believe it to be a noble effort in response to recent reports of four gay teen suicides last month. However, I have major problems with it that are best distilled in Everett Maroon’s trenchant blog post on the subject, as well as Tasha Fierce’s tweet that “it doesn’t always get better.” I don’t know if Cox has any interest in commenting, but would imagine that his life as a queer Southern teenager with Marfan syndrome informs the resistive artist he is today.
Today’s post is dedicated to Caitlin, a friend of mine from graduate school who runs the blog Dark Room. After living in College Station for a couple of years, she and her husband are moving back to the Pacific Northwest. Caitlin taught me quite a few things as a friend and colleague. Perhaps her largest contribution is my appreciation of horror film, which I didn’t have when we first met. Going into our master’s program, I was strongly of the mind that horror is resistant, if not entirely antithetical, toward feminism. But Caitlin, who is both a feminist and horror aficionado, taught me the power of looking and interpreting the genre from a feminist perspective. Like me, she’s a huge music fan and champions the work of independent female musicians. Thus, it seems fitting that the last time we’ll see each other for the immediate future is at the Girls Rock Camp Austin showcase (tomorrow at the HighBall — doors open at noon). In tribute, I thought I’d do a brief write-up on The 126.96.36.199s’ cameo in Kill Bill, Volume One. Grrrl rock and Quentin Tarantino? I can’t think of a better pairing to honor her.
The story goes that director Tarantino was introduced to the band while frequenting a Japanese clothing store and had to track them down. Eventually, he put them in the first installment of his two-part revenge epic about a bride (Uma Thurman) wronged by her groom (David Carradine), with whom she used to work for as a member of his crime syndicate, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. In order to seek justice, the bride must slaughter the entire organization. While the second volume is more meditative in its focus on the couple’s final showdown, the first half depicts her picking off her former work associates, employing a myriad of genres for each vignette. It culminates in a battle between the Bride and former DIVA O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), who runs a criminal organization in Tokyo. But in order to battle O-Ren, the Bride must first take out her crew in a bar where The 188.8.131.52s are playing.
As you can tell from the band’s sound, cultural references, and performance of The Ikettes’ “I’m Blue,” the Japanese outfit is heavily influenced by 60s Americana, particularly girl groups and surf rock. As I’ve discussed in previous entries, similar interests are shared with Japanese characters in movies like Mystery Train and Linda Linda Linda. But I wonder about the feedback loop between Japan’s cultural fascination with American rock music and 20th century youth culture and Americans’ interest in some of their pop culture being appropriated and reinterpreted by members of an Eastern nation.
Obviously, this exchange can sometimes perpetuate Western assumptions of a cutesy, monolithic Japanese culture heavily rooted in American narcissism. So I feel a bit uneasy when interpreting the band’s appearance in the movie. It could easily be argued that they’re window-dressing, as well as means of authenticating an outsider’s conceptualization of what a “real” izakaya must be like. Yet I still feel that their sound is interpreting American rock music in a way analogous to Tarantino’s celebration of Japanese popular culture, particularly martial arts movies and anime. It may not be an easy pairing, but The 184.108.40.206s rock it out.
Today’s entry focuses on author Maria Raha’s book Cinderella’s Big Score which focuses on female contributions to American and British punk, alternative, and independent music from the mid-1970s to, at its 2005 release, the present. It is to be the first title read by the rock n’ roll book club some Girls Rock Camp Austin peeps have put together. As we haven’t yet met to discuss the book, I’m using my blog to formulate my thoughts on it.
I picked up Raha’s book back in early 2006 (local business plug: I bought it at MonkeyWrench Books). I read it in between getting my wisdom teeth pulled and taking time off work to engage in a battle with my sinuses. In short, I devoured it while bed-ridden and pissy. This didn’t bode well for the reading process, as I did not like the book. But I wanted to give it another chance, so this was an opportunity to re-read it.
At the time, my problems were two-fold.
1. The scope is too broad. 30-plus years of rock history, broken down into tiny chapters about 38 different female artists? Yikes! It felt like I was reading overviews with little more insight than All Music Guide entries. Either narrow it down or write a bigger book! And I already knew most of these artists before I picked up the book, so I didn’t feel like I was getting any new information.
2. Raha is very much of the “indie rock, good; pop, bad” persuasion and does little to challenge her biases or problematize the book’s subjects. As many of the rock artists she holds in high esteem are white women and many of the pop artists she dislikes are women of color, this creates an unintentional yet unfortunate gendered racial tension.
I think about this a lot. When I co-teach music history workshops with Kristen at Act Your Age, we notice that the reception of certain musical subgenres is divided along racial lines. Participants of color tend to get excited about hip hop, R&B, and pop and check out during discussions of punk and riot grrrl. It might be that riot grrrl means a great deal to white girls and white women, but doesn’t speak to many girls and women of color.
(Note: This isn’t to say girls and women of color can’t relate to or be inspired by riot grrrl; I just wonder how many do.)
In addition to the dicey racial implications of the “indie rock, good; pop, bad” binary, I found — and still find — Raha’s reading of pop music to be shallow and essentializing. While I too find The Spice Girls’ (soda) watered-down brand of girl power feminism troubling, along with the advent of millennial teen-pop jailbait like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, I think there’s much more going on here than Raha does. For one, there’s no discussion of fans’ complex relationships with their teen idols (for a closer reading on the subject, I’d recommend scholar Dafna Lemish’s article “Spice Girls’ talk: A case study in the development of gendered identity”). There’s also scant consideration of how image-making is a complex process for female stars — save for Madonna, a person Raha seems to approve of save for her headline grabbing VMA kiss with Spears — and how this is true for both underground and mainstream female artists.
As people forget that Aguilera was in on “the kiss” or that her vocals were live, Raha puts little value in mainstream vocalists’ singing ability, which can involve considerable musical technique and craft. This also absents girl groups like En Vogue and Destiny’s Child or solo artists like Beyoncé from discussion. I also find it insulting that she assumes all of these women are pop dollies Svengalied by men.
This doesn’t even get into how hip hop, both mainstream and independent, is all but ignored in this book.
Oh, and please don’t hate on Janet Jackson.
It may be easy to configure her as a dancer who let Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis create her career for her, or crack wise about plastic surgery, weight fluctuations, and wardrobe malfunctions. But let’s not forget that her songs tackle complex issues like racial injustice, AIDS, homophobia, domestic violence, masturbation, sexual agency, and female autonomy. She’s the woman behind “The Pleasure Principle,” “Nasty,” “Control,” “Together Again,” “What About?,” “Free Zone,” “What Have You Done For Me Lately?,” “Rhythm Nation,” and the black feminist anthem “New Agenda.” She may be the artist responsible for many fans’ entrance into feminism.
These feelings still spike up, though I liked this book more the second time. I took for granted that Raha contextualizes each section of her book with an overview of what was going on in popular music at the time. I do bristle at her open, unchecked animosity for pop’s artificiality (as if indie rock is an exemplar of authenticity; it’s a myth that still gets perpetuated and results in many backlashes against bands like Vampire Weekend, a band I’d be happy to argue on behalf of elsewhere). But I also appreciate how Raha takes hardcore, grunge, nu metal, and the male output of much punk and indie rock to task for practicing misogyny and abiding by patriarchy. And I like that she does champion some female pop stars, particularly Cyndi Lauper and Tina Turner. I also like her efforts to discuss female musicians like Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon in mixed-gender bands, and bring up issues women had working with one another.
Raha also discusses bands and artists I didn’t know much about. Thanks for shining a light on Lunachicks, Crass’ Joy De Vivre and Eve Libertine, Avengers’ Penelope Houston, Fastbacks’ Lulu Gargiulo and Kim Warnick. Thanks for bringing Germs’ manager Nicole Panter, Tsunami’s Jenny Toomey and queercore legends Tribe 8 and Team Dretsch into the discussion, as they often get overlooked.
There are of course some artists I wish were discussed, but know Raha had limited space to cover the artists she did, which was already a considerable aggregate. Because this is my blog, I’ll list some ladies, most of whom I’ve discussed here: Delta 5, Au Pairs, Bush Tetras, Y Pants, Pylon, Cibo Matto, Jean Grae, Joanna Newsom, Ponytail, Explode Into Colors, M.I.A., Karen O, Santigold, Yo Majesty, St. Vincent, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Bat for Lashes, Fever Ray, Finally Punk, and Follow That Bird. As some of the artists she discusses are or were on major labels, I will also include Kate Bush, Björk, Liz Phair, Tori Amos, and Erykah Badu.
As Raha’s book came out just as indie and mainstream were melding in ways similar yet far more pervasive than the alternative rock boom of a pre-bust American music industry, I wonder what she makes of Solange covering Dirty Projectors or joining Of Montreal on stage. What does she make of M.I.A. or Santigold, two indie artists who court mainstream success? She wrote her book just as download culture forever altered listeners’ exposure to music and their resulting consumer habits.
When I first read this book, I questioned the usefulness of it. A noble effort, to be sure. But how valuable is an overview on obscure or underground female artists when the majority of its potential readers can probably follow blogs and download tracks? While I know the book is geared toward younger women — and I certainly would have valued the book at this age — most of the girls I’ve met or worked with at Girls Rock Camp Austin already knew just about everyone mentioned here.
That said, I do think the book is a good primer for young girls and women just starting to navigate the indie rock’s craggy terrain. But if you’re gifting it, make sure to include a mix CD and a set of discussion questions. Maybe it’ll start a book club.
For financial reasons, I was only able to swing one day of Fun Fun Fun Fest so I’m blogging while many in this fair city are catching some good music in Waterloo Park. Although, admittedly, if you’re gonna do one day of the festival, I think yesterday was the way to go. I got to check several bands I’ve never seen before off my list: No Age (who I’ve missed by a marrow margin at least three times), Jesus Lizard, Pharcyde, Les Savy Fav, and Death.
But if you have the scratch, please make sure everyone sees one of Mika Miko’s last shows ever on the black stage at 2:55. I might try to get down there later just to hear it from the other side of the fence.
Mika Miko’s exceptional presence on this year’s bill seems as good a place as any to remember that, as Melissa at GRCA astutely pointed out in her recent post, this year boasts a very dudecentric line-up. So I’ll review Jacqueline Warwick’s book Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s book in the hopes that at least one historically significant girl group or all-female band will reunite for next year’s FFFF like Death did this year. And like the Shangri-Las did at CBGB’s in 1977.
As much as I hate comparing women’s work so as to pit them in opposition, Warwick’s book is a tremendous example of how effective it can be to narrow the scope of the cultural moment being covered, something I wish Charlotte Greig would have considered when penning her book on girl groups. While Greig truncates the history of the girl group era in order to broaden the definition of what a girl group is, Warwick focuses primarily on this brief but important moment in history (roughly between 1958 and 1965), considering its ongoing influence as an epilogue.
By taking this approach, Warwick considers the girl group era and its participants from several different, often surprising, areas of inquiry. As a result, she proves the cultural signficance of a popular form dismissed by many as superficial, polished, and phony who instead tend to favor rock music’s supposed transcendent raw authenticity, and argues strongly that this binary construction is inherently gendered. Duh, and amen.
Warwick posits that one of the most important things about the girl group era was its insistence on putting girls and young women in the spotlight, introducing a complex, celebratoryn and at times contradictory performance of what the author calls “girlness”. Often, these ladies were working class, and of African American or mixed racial and ethnic heritage. They had few options for financial mobility and minimal career prospects being marriage, motherhood, clerical jobs, and day labor. Forming vocal groups together and cutting records gave them access to other opportuntities toward professional advancement and personal growth, expanding the idea of girlhood as an identity across race and class lines.
Sometimes these groupings resulted in the cultivation of considerable, devoted fan bases that, in The Supremes and The Ronnettes’ cases, were comparable to Beatlemania. Some of those fans were even other male-only rock bands, like The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and later, The Ramones. Take that, pop-rock, girl-boy binaries!
In other words, I’m telling you to read this book.
One thing I appreciate about Warwick’s book from the outset is the celebration of the female voice. As I’ve long believed and argued extensively in this blog, we cannot give short-shrift to singers. While they can assuredly be tokenized and objectified, but they can also be empowered, embodied, and forge their own agency. Heartenly, she finds much going on with the voice, a distinct instrument no matter how it may have been manipulated or homogenized by label owners like Motown’s Barry Gordy and producers like Phil Spector and his overwhelming wall of sound. She hears the genteel precision of Diana Ross’s soprano, the urgent purr of Ronnie Spector’s husky alto, the untrained wavering of Shirelle Shirley Owens’s pitch, the gutteral inflections on Supreme Florence Ballard’s tone, the put-on nasal affectations of Broadway-trained groups like The Angels, the racial dimensions of Dusty Springfield’s blue-eyed soul, and the teenaged monotone of Shangri-La Mary Weiss.
She also hears these girls singing to one another, often in their own forms of feminine dialect and for the purposes of providing support and advice. On record, acts like The Dixie Cups, The Crystals, Betty Everett, and The Velvelettes would pepper their songs with seemingly nonsensical words and phrases like “iko iko,” “da doo ron ron,” “shoop,” and “doo lang doo lang,” often provided by backing vocalists as a means of support for the lead vocalist, who might be intimating her feelings about burgeoning romance or her conflicted feelings in the aftermath of a break-up.
Often, these girls were providing one another moral support and providing advice as well. While Warwick notes that advice songs tended to be the domain of girl groups with African American members like The Velvelettes, The Shirelles, The Chiffons, and The Marvelettes, they often imparted wisdom to their audiences that they learned from their mothers or their sisters, as well as sharing what they’ve learned from their own experiences. In doing so, these songs provided a counterargument to the assertion that girl groups only sang about boys and also expanded female discourse in popular music by including the words and experiences of generations of women into then present-day pop songs by girls.
It cannot be ignored that while many girl group songs were written by men, not all of them were. As mentioned elsewhere, Brill Building stalwarts like Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich, and Carole King were of paramount importance to the era. Many of these women, like Greenwich, wrote about seemingly teenage issues like young love and treated it as legitimate, at times giving it life-and-death importance, as she did on The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack.”
King is a particularly interesting case as well. Before striking out on her own as a solo artist, she wrote many important songs for girl groups. Some songs, like The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” address the troubling and dangerous aspects of patriarchy and oppression, and have been covered to harrowing effect by bands like Hole and Grizzly Bear.
Other songs King penned gesture toward the era’s prescience regarding shifting cultural attitudes toward feminism, female agency, and sexual autonomy, as on The Shirelles’ anthemic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”
Girl groups were also clearly singing with one another, as girl groups often were comprised of siblings and relatives who wore matching outfits and performed intricate choreography to suggest that these girls were a unit, despite at times having clearly defined lead singers and stars who (especially in Diana Ross’s case) were thin and had a more conventional look and sound.
It was this image coordination that made The Ronnettes able to ingratiate night clubs when they were underaged, gave them the confidence to perform at those night clubs, and provided them with a sense of belonging that made them tough enough to brave any New York City street. It also makes this sense of actual or engineered sisterhood and camderadie seem especially fragile when success encroaches on it, as the tragic dimensions of Estelle Bennett and Florence Ballard‘s post-girl group lives remind.
Warwick shies from making any explicitly queer connections to girl groups beyond passing references to Springfield and Lesley Gore’s orientations and their relationships with the closet. I would have liked a bit more discussion of the queer dynamics of the groups’ homosocial bonding both on- and off-record. A brief appraisal of queer fandom (seemingly most pronounced among certain circles of gay men, though not exclusively) would also have been appreciated.
That said, I do appreciate Warwick reminding her readers of girl groups’ continued impact. As this is the section of the book that gets less focus, it would be worthwhile to read Warwick’s and Greig’s books together to get a larger sense of how punk, hip hop, and contemporary pop music were influenced by girl groups.
I would hasten to add country music to the list of genres that were shaped by this era. Given last night’s Saturday Night Live, which featured crossover star Taylor Swift as both host and musical guest (a rare opportunity for most pop stars, unless they are Justin or Britney). Watching her play a brace-faced teenager in a skit about parents who are worse drivers than their kids and her performance of “You Belong To Me” complete with careful, song-appropriate gestures, it was clear to me that the girl group era continues. As Mika Miko performs one of their last shows later today, I’ll wonder where it’ll permeate next.
When I originally started thinking about artists who might expand the definition of what a diva is, the first person who came to mind was the subject of this post. Who else but a diva could be seen in concert halls and magazines as well as museum exhibits, obscure sitcoms, and cultish b-movies? Campy, profane, versed in popular culture, obsessed with the fragmented nature of female personae, and tailed by a devoted audience, Magnuson definitely seems to meet the requirements of being diva.
Like Wynne Greenwood (aka Tracy + the Plastics), Magnuson made a name for herself through the available art scene, specifically by managing Club 57 in the East Village during the early 1980s. At the time, Club 57 — which originally claimed its residence in a church basement — was a burgeoning scene comprised of folks like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, the B-52s, Klaus Nomi, and Fab Five Freddy. Magnuson and her patrons were obsessed with the radioactive kitsch of their Cold War-era adolescence and she would often arrange theme nights like day-glo erotic art show and Elvis Presley hootenannies or turn the venue into a putt-putt golf or a tiki lounge. During this time, she also became a part of Pulsallama, a percussion-based girl group that Magnuson thought of as an anti-band rebelling against the “fashionable primitivism” Malcolm McLaren was espousing with Bow Wow Wow, who he was managing (re: manipulating) at the time. Magnuson had left the group by the time they made “The Devil Lives in My Husband’s Body,” but you can get a good sense of what they were about by listening to this.
A key trait for any diva to me seems to be the ability to inhabit various roles, sometimes in opposition to one another, through performance. Folks might be quick to offer up a better-known pop icons like Madonna, Christina Aguilera, and Beyoncé, but let’s not forget Magnuson who often differed from these women by using her chameleon-like ability to create characters that poked fun at female stereotypes, materialism, confessionalism, and the hollowness of fame. Pairing up with Tom Rubnitz, she put together “Made for Television” in 1981 for PBS’s Alive From Off Center. The 15-minute piece, which simulates late-night channel surfing, features believeable send-ups of televangelism, soap operas, and game shows with Magnuson playing all the parts. Particularly with regard to how hollow and alienating our collective fixation of fame can be, it reminds me of Eileen Maxson’s “Lost Broadcasts,” which depicts the artist as a reality show hopeful whose staggeringly candid audition tape is being fast-forwarded and talked over by a disinterested casting agent fielding a phone call.
I cannot locate “Made For Television” online, but I have seen it in exhibition. If you hear about it coming to your town, I suggest you see it. If you find it on the Interwebz, share with the group.
In the mid-1980s, Magnuson got together with Mark Kramer to form Bongwater, a band where this kind of performance was all too common.
Ever the actress, she would off-set duties with Bongwater with turns in the ABC Jamie Lee Curtis/Richard Lewis sitcom Anything But Love, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, and The Hunger as well as Susan Seidelman’s beloved Desperately Seeking Susan and Making Mr. Right (which totally looks like a movie I should see).
In 1995, Magnuson released her first solo album, The Luv Show, which was apparently inspired by the mad-cap narratives, sex-crazed vixens, and pop-art shine of Russ Meyer movies. It certainly explains the cover, though no explanation needs to be given for songs like “Miss Pussy Pants.”
While Magnuson was never going to be a mainstream talent, it’s heartening to know that our media culture had room for a smart, cheeky lady all too willing to represent in the margins. Actually, they still seem to have the room for her, as Magnuson released her second solo album Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories in 2006, embarks on cabaret tours, and does occasional film work. More importantly, Magnuson seems all too willing to deconstruct the very idea of the diva, who she is, who she pretends to be, who she represents, and where her markers of identity blur and splinter. She might be Cindy Sherman‘s kind of diva. She’s definitely my kind of diva.