Presenters matter to televised award shows. Their immediate function is to hand out prizes. But they often reflect how an industry uses ceremony to perceive of itself at a particular historical moment, whether they’re a bright young thing, an emblem, a legend in their own time, or willing participants in corporate synergy. Sometimes they let you know who’s going to win, as when Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg welcomed Martin Scorsese to Mount Rushmore with a Best Director Oscar for The Departed. Sometimes, they fall on their sword and read bad jokes from a teleprompter to keep things moving. Other times, they kill. And sometimes, they signify the distance between the world and the future.
Like most award shows, the Grammys—which broadcast on Monday for the first time in its nearly 60-year history to accommodate Pacific Standard Time—are not always perceptive about the deeper significance of what awards presenters are assigned to distribute. This isn’t a criticism, necessarily; critics’ year-end lists suffer from presentism’s biases too. While the institutions responsible for the show—the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and CBS, respectively—may have longevity on its mind in other respects, an award show is ultimately a snapshot of an industry at a particular year, as determined by the compromises made while honoring constituents’ perceptions and advertisers’ immediate commercial directives.
Those two things can still tell us quite a bit of what the Grammys thinks it is in 2016. So it matters that Ariana Grande dorked out before the Weeknd’s live performance of “Can’t Feel My Face” and “In the Night,” singing puns as she introduced her duet partner on “Love Me Harder,” 2014’s filthiest house pastiche and a launch pad for the two shy nerds at its center. It matters that LL Cool J and James Corden set up a messy, ill-conceived Lionel Richie tribute in order to plug NCIS: Los Angeles and The Late Late Show while Stephen Colbert threw it to Hamilton on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s way to an EGOT. It matters that Ed Sheeran announced Lady Gaga’s David Bowie retrospective because NARAS rewards the British singer’s inoffensive blue-eyed soul but never nominated anything from the chameleon’s boundary-pushing 70s output, which Gaga and Nile Rodgers heavily showcased in their professional-grade “rock opera” eulogy. It matters that Rock Ambassador Dave Grohl honored Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister by introducing a bloated tribute from the Hollywood Vampires, which made a stronger case against white men grinding rock into obsolescence than both hours of Vinyl’s pilot. They made me long for an encore from the excellent Alabama Shakes, who immediately preceded them with a spacious, electrifying rendition of “Don’t Wanna Fight,” which won Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance, along with Best Alternative Music Album (Sound and Color wasn’t nominated for Best Rock Album). It matters that Sam Smith handed out Best New Artist, that Meghan Trainor took her win very seriously, and that Courtney Barnett probably ducked out early. It matters that Beyoncé gave Record of the Year to Bruno Mars for “Uptown Funk” after they ran off with Maroon 5’s Coldplay’s Super Bowl half-time show, which broadcast a week and a day before on the same network.
And it certainly matters that three surviving members of 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award recipients’ Earth, Wind & Fire presented Album of the Year to Taylor Swift’s 1989 instead of to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
As Taylor Swift accepted her award, I wondered what Philip Bailey, Verdine White, and Ralph Johnson—bassist Verdine in the middle, honoring his brother Maurice’s legacy by looking like he jumped off That’s The Way of the World by way of Katt Williams’s mood board in a green velvet tuxedo jacket—made of this moment and their place in history as musicians and black men. As category front-runners, 1989 and To Pimp a Butterfly are both ostensibly about how artists are shaped by their current circumstances in relation to the music they listened to growing up. Those circumstances matter, and matter differently if you were born in 1989 as a white girl in an upper-middle-class family in a Pennsylvania borough or in 1987 as a black boy to parents endeavoring to raise their family in Compton.
The market is supposed to be the equalizer. Award shows puncture this myth. As a listener I struggle to give Swift the benefit of the doubt because her feminism often comes with an edge of entitled white girl vengeance that I distrust (yes Kanye West’s trolling on “Famous” is legit gross, but Yeezy is a post unto himself). But I appreciate 1989 as a well-crafted genre study. In particular the dazzling “Out of the Woods,” which opened the broadcast, fuses Swift’s Instagram poetry with Jack Antonoff’s fractured pop production to create the best song T’Pau never recorded. 1989 was favored to win because you don’t move that many units of any album at this moment in recording industry history without netting Album of the Year … unless you’re Beyoncé, I guess (Adele’s 25 will win next year when it’s eligible).1989 is also a testament to the album, and perhaps especially to the album on CD, which many record executives wish we still bought. It’s a streamlined, economical, blockbuster pop statement. Or, said differently, it sounds like an album that would win a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2016 and in 1989.
Clocking in at nearly 80 minutes (a length of time a CD can store, giving it the advantage over other formats for a time), To Pimp a Butterfly is a glorious mess. The kind of mess you go through to get to nuance. The kind of mess where intersectionality dwells, overlaps, and spills over. What I find most exhilarating about To Pimp a Butterfly is how Lamar and its impressive team of musicians and producers positioned his flow within black musical history, thus connecting his feelings of double consciousness to the radical streak that energized G-Funk, 70s soul, and avant-garde jazz. Lamar led with eleven nominations, and kicked off the broadcast after Swift’s performance and host LL Cool J’s opening monologue by collecting his award for Best Rap Album, which was presented to him by rapper Ice Cube and his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., who recently played his father in a biopic about his former group N.W.A (see—presenters matter). Of the five Grammys he won, this was the only award Lamar collected during the broadcast and thus the only opportunity Lamar had to give a speech on live television.
Lamar was also rewarded for “Alright,” a song that has rightly come to represent the resilient ache of #blacklivesmatter in the ongoing, uphill struggle for racial equality and social justice. Though it lost Song of the Year to Sheeran’s wedding reception jam “Thinking Out Loud,” it won Best Rap Performance. Such an accolade is meaningful for a number of reasons, not least of which because it was the first category NARAS established—in 1989, no less—to recognize significant work in hip-hop vocal performance. However its first recipients, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, staged a boycott because the presentation would not be televised. The award for Best Rap Performance—which was reintroduced in 2012—was not broadcast last night either, and Will Smith is still opting out of industry award shows because of systemic inequality.
Which is why it was exhilarating to see Lamar’s medley in the middle of the ceremony. One thing the Grammys are valued for, especially as networks attempt to use televised award shows as an opportunity to capitalize upon social media and second-screen viewing practices, is live musical performances. Over the years, more categories are getting pushed out of the television broadcast and being distributed in other venues and forums to make room for them. Thus it is incumbent upon artists to turn the stage into a platform, and smart performers think about what they want to use that space to say.
Last year, Beyoncé closed the Grammys with a solemn performance of gospel standard “Take My Hand Oh Precious Lord.” It was written by Reverend Thomas Dorsey, beloved by Martin Luther King Jr., and thus claimed by the Civil Rights Movement. It has also been extensively recorded by various singers. One of them was R&B singer Ledisi for the soundtrack to Selma, Ava DuVernay’s historical film about the 1965 Voting Rights campaign that was underrepresented as a nominee for 2015’s Academy Awards. Beyoncé was flanked by a men’s chorus in white suits, barefoot with rolled pant legs meant to evoke slave auctions to make a critique about the devaluation of black people in the United States. My DVR cut off the performance. “Formation” may exist, in part, to correct this. You do not cut off Beyoncé.
As an astute musician who has come into his own as a very fine live TV performer (for me, the turning point was when he turned Imagine Dragons into his backing band during the 2014 ceremony), Lamar probably considered not only the importance of his message, but where it was placed in the broadcast (Grammy producer Ken Erlich spoke with Billboard about the segment prior to the ceremony). Introduced by actor Don Cheadle, whose Miles Davis biopic is scheduled for an April 2016 theatrical release with distribution from Sony Pictures Classics (presenters matter), Lamar chose to turn the Staples Center stage into a cell block, casting himself as a prisoner.
To stunned silence, Lamar wound his cuffed hands around the microphone and launched into “The Blacker the Berry.” He then turned the stage into a bonfire for “Alright” in order to expand the parameters of broadcast television by acknowledging the rich, joyous traditions of African dance, if only briefly. Lamar concluded with a unreleased new song—the closest the Grammys really got to acknowledging how digital distribution has bypassed traditional album releases beyond Drake’s nomination for If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late—which he performed directly for the camera. The crew captured it with a series of frenetic medium close-up shots before zooming out to reveal Lamar standing in silhouette before a projected image of Africa with “Compton” written across it in Old English font. In that brief moment, to thunderous applause, Lamar showed us the distance between the world the recording industry lives in now and the future we have yet to realize.
Everyone, this is important. I’m deejaying for the first time in a place that is not my kitchen or college radio station. I’m spinning at Alchemy Cafe on Friday, July 6. I’m putting together a set of music from women in soul, R&B, and hip hop. You should be there to dance with me. You can expect to hear something like this.
I finally saw Joe Cornish’s science-fiction social comedy Attack the Block a few weekends back. And I mean, wow. Earlier this year, I tweeted that Kelly Reichardt Meek’s Cutoff deserved the Criterion treatment (and Kristen at Dear Black Woman, promptly called bullshit). Well, I don’t want to compare two very different movies, but Attack the Block might be my favorite movie of this year, edging out Meek‘s and Joe Wright’s underrated, superfun Hanna.
Part of what worked with Attack the Block was Steven Price and Basement Jaxx’s music. Following the Chemical Brothers’ propulsive, outsize work for Hanna, Block‘s score strengthens comparisons to John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 with its frenetic pace, ominous bass, and treble-heavy synth flourishes that ramp up the suspense. Music is also used to hail certain characters and orient the audience to their subjectivities, particularly for hipster stoner Brewis (Luke Treadaway). This follows British film and television efforts with similar investment in contemporary pop music, like Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and the British TV series Misfits, which made good use of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up,” and especially Wiley’s “Wearing My Rolex” in its first season.
Extending the Carpenter comparison further, Block has some of the smartest, saddest, most bleakly funny commentary about urban blight, disenfranchised youth, and the cancerous effects of institutional racism. Hua Hsu linked the film to last summer’s London riots. The night-black, neon-fanged, fuzzy alien invaders Block‘s South London street gang defend themselves against works as a metaphor for law enforcement’s destructive efforts and lowered expectations of a multicultural youth aggregate they are grooming for incarceration. Leader Moses (star-in-the-making John Boyega) says as much at one point, comparing the monsters to the crack epidemic, which was politically engineered in the 1980s to target and destroy the urban poor. To me, Block‘s monsters also recall the mute black alien in John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet and the silencing power of racial stereotypes in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. These monsters remind the gang of society’s racist expectations for them and have no regard for their home. They must be destroyed, even if it means cruel casualties from within the ranks (RIP and an avalanche of tears, Jerome). The cops reward their restorative efforts by arresting them for murder and vandalism. History, and hopefully the community, promise an intervention. Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a white female neighbor, reports their innocence and a crowd of young people chant Moses’ name. I remained hopeful of their exoneration through the credits, even though my eyes were full of tears.
Block also reminds me of is Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine, a French film about three male friends of Jewish, African, and Moroccan heritage who struggle to survive in the banlieues. The points of similarity are fairly superficial. The characters identify strongly with hip hop, perhaps due in part to the constant threat of police brutality, which is reflected in both films’ music and dialogue. Both films also make a concerted effort to note racial and ethnic differences between the characters, as well as contextualize and develop those differences as something beyond problematically labeled “local color” or “flavor.”
A possible point of departure for me, though, is the films’ consideration for women. Not unlike Dick Hebdige’s influential Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Kassovitz’s vision of urban youth is one that ignores women and girls fulfilling anything but an ornamental or maternal role subordinate to their lovers and sons. Block makes some consideration for the gang’s female counterparts. Sure, two of the actresses go unbilled, merely cast to bicker with the boys and braid their hair. But Tia (Danielle Vitalis) and Dimples (Paige Meade) are two girls of color who differentiate themselves by voicing opinion, offering concern, and getting involved with killing the monsters. I cheered at Dimples resourcefulness when she stabbed one of them with her ice skate. Furthermore, Sam’s character undergoes some interesting transformations. A young nurse who is new to the neighborhood, Sam originally views the boys as adversaries after they mug her. But after circumstances require her to work with them, she recognizes their humanity and the ways in which society wants them to fail. Thus her claim of the boys’ innocence to the police at the end of the film is a small triumph, and further suggests the film’s rich, discursive interests surrounding age, gender, race, and class and the power of resistive politics. Not a bad start for an 90-minute monster movie.
In an effort to tend to a Criterion backlog in my Netflix Instant queue, I watched Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank last night. I remember being intrigued when I caught the preview during a screening of An Education (which would pair well thematically). I was also more than a little nervous that the movie would take working-class girlhood less as a subject of exploration and instead as grounds for moral panic.
What transpires in Arnold’s 2009 feature is something altogether more disconcerting. It’s an unsettling film about Mia (Katie Jarvis), a fifteen-year-old girl who lives on an Essex council estate with her young mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and kid sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Joanne, who was probably close to her eldest daughter’s age when she had her, is perpetually drunk and between boyfriends. Mia’s contentious relationship with Tyler is probably the closest thing she has resembling a homosocial friendship. Beyond her connection to local boy Billy (Harry Treadway), Mia doesn’t seem to have friends. Her mom’s new beau Connor (Michael Fassbender) reeks of dishonorable intention.
Mia’s creative outlet is dancing. But this is a solitary activity. She has aspirations to be a b-girl, yet there’s no one with whom to battle or practice. The film is bookended by scenes where Mia attempts to engage with girl dancers in her peer group. All of them are more interested in gyrating like a video vixen instead of popping, locking, and spinning. At the beginning of the film, she admonishes some neighborhood girls for their jiggly routines. Mia spends much of the movie preparing to audition for a local club. When the tryouts finally happen, she’s horrified to discover that the staff is looking for exotic dancers. Two judges preside over the audition. In an interesting twist, it’s the female judge who requests that Mia wear her hair down and asks why she isn’t wearing hot pants. Perhaps recalling an unfortunate set of events with her mother’s boyfriend, Mia walks out of the audition and ultimately leaves home.
Mia’s inability to find a female dance partner or a community who takes any interest in her dancing recalls b-girl Asia One’s frustrations in Rachel Raimist’s hip hop documentary Nobody Knows My Name. Asia One is constantly searching for another girl to dance with and a hip hop video production that isn’t holding casting at a strip club, but neither are easy to come by.
Mia’s one-sided love for a genre and dance form is what really resonated with me. It’s hard to love hip hop sometimes when it doesn’t reciprocate. The film’s soundtrack features Wiley, Eric B and Rakim, Nas, and Gang Starr (RIP, Guru), as well as tracks from James Brown, Gregory Isaacs, and prominent use of Bobby Womack’s cover of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin'”. The beats are banging and the grooves are deep, but Mia’s often dancing to them alone.
This is why my favorite scene in the film is at the end. Mia is preparing to leave when she finds her mother in the living room, dancing to her daughter’s Nas CD. Joanne tells her daughter to fuck off, which prompts Mia and Tyler to join in on a dance to “Life’s a Bitch.” It’s a touching scene in a film that’s relentlessly bleak. While the movie knows this tender moment is fleeting, it’s also the only time we see Mia dance with people instead of for them or in isolation. It’s also the rare instance where we see a smile on her face. And while Mia moves away from her mother and sister, she leaves her CDs with them. Perhaps this will lead to future dance parties.
Alyx, seriously? Today’s post is about an album cover that features the women of Ladytron in bathing suits? Pin-ups for folks who wear cardigans, make library puns, and like skinny girls? Great. I’ll go back to poring over my Tegan and Sarah albums. They look similarly gamine and like streaky make-up but aren’t scantily clad in repose on the grass being shot from above like an American Apparel ad. You keep fighting that fight.
I bring up the cover of Ladytron’s 2003 mix CD entitled Softcore Jukebox for these reasons:
1) The cover is eye-catching, though obviously in a problematic way. It objectifies vocalists Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo, respectively wearing a sky blue tank and shiny black skull string bikini that I hope came from their own closets (but probably didn’t — do people swim in Liverpool?). In addition, it doesn’t even show the rest of the band, which is also comprised of dudes Reuben Wu and Daniel Hunt.
2) The title seems leering and provocative, but is also jibberish. What the eff is a “softcore jukebox”? Is it different from a “hardcore jukebox” in that it works with a crotch patch and doesn’t do penetration? Or would a cadre of queercore jukeboxes have to create a scene for themselves in response to the homophobic, homoerotic hardcore jukebox scene?
3) The cover is a modest revision of Roxy Music’s Country Life cover, which features Amazonian models in see-through underwear boasting serious 70s ladygarden. Country Life was so controversial upon its release that a revised cover had to be printed with the women taken out of the image.
4) Apparently a German artist named Pia Dehne reconfigured Country Life to address the gendered aspects of camouflage and mimicry.
5) Softcore Jukebox came out during a wave of mix CDs that featured dance songs with electronic instrumentation alongside rockier fare. Critics like citing Kings of Convenience leader Erlend Øye‘s DJ-Kicks compilation, but he was hardly the first to do this, as compilations like the Back to Mine series suggest. Hell, he wasn’t even the first person to make a DJ-Kicks compilation. I’d also like to put in a plug for Annie’s DJ-Kicks compilation, which features ESG’s “My Love For You.” Hot Chip’s gets my approval as well, along with any mix that has songs from both New Order and Positive K.
6) A cover that references an iconic album cover seems relevant, especially because the women in the band are the cover subjects and said band created a mix CD of pre-existing dance songs. Seems camouflage and mimicry may apply here, along with reference. This might be characteristic of the band. After all, Ladytron didn’t just swipe the cover of Country Life for their mix CD. They took their name from a Roxy Music song.
Much of my interest in Ladytron is in Marnie and Aroyo. I like how they try to sound like robots (or ladytrons), mimicking their coldness and just-out-of-date technological make-up while singing songs about the inherent datedness and fickleness of fashion, beauty, and youth (see: “Seventeen,” “Blue Jeans,” and “Beauty No. 2”). This juxtaposes nicely with the band’s reliance on electronic instrumentation.
In their later work — particularly the brooding Witching Hour — more traditionally rock instrumentation like electric guitars spike up their sound on songs like “amTV,” suggesting that Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees were as much of an influence on the band as Kraftwerk. Also, I can’t help but point out that TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” features a fuzzed-out bass line very similar to Ladytron’s “International Dateline,” though my hunch is that both bands probably got it from Bauhaus.
This brings me to the mix CD itself, which smashes dance music and rock music against one another, suggesting the band’s influences and approaches. It also unearths a long-obscured truth: dance music has always co-mingled with rock and, later, hip hop. And I’m not talking about The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” as their interrelation has a much deeper, storied history. I always hate it when detractors say things like “not another synth pop track” or “I hate disco,” as if rock music and its studied authenticity doesn’t rely on rhythm sections and repetitive passages of catchy melodies too. As if rock is about the truth and dance music is just piffle. C’mon now.
As for the album’s content? Meh. Some songs work better than others, and some of it is fairly forgettable. Oddly enough, the most effective offerings for me are the rock songs that I didn’t know you could dance to. I’ll stand by The Fall, Wire, Shocking Blue, and Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra’s classic “Some Velvet Morning,” which is the compilation’s haunting closer. I already knew you could dance to !!!, Fannypack, and Cristina, so they get a pass. You can kind of jig to My Bloody Valentine’s “Soon,” the intro from which Garbage stole for “My Lover’s Box.” I liked that I also like Ladytron’s cover of Tweet’s “Oops (Oh My)” — an ode to masturbation, a premonition for me that Tweet and producer Missy Elliott might be more than friends, Missy’s first “ping!” on my gaydar, and a cherished memory as the “poem” one of my classmates read aloud with deadpan faux seriousness in a college English class. I like the original much more, but I appreciate the band’s effort to suggest that hip hop and R&B influence them. Let’s listen and compare, shall we?
Thus the cover, like song selection and reinterpretation, becomes a messy process for both band and listener that is guaranteed to leave grass stains.
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.
So, I have two entries drafted on Almost Famous and Sonic Youth’s cameo on last night’s Gossip Girl. Now, I could finish one of them and rush it to publication for you kind, attentive readers. But, I started watching season one of Friday Night Lights this weekend and some profound race relations stuff is going down and I intend to finish disc four tonight. If you’ve watched the show, you understand. If you haven’t, then I highly recommend starting, especially if you’re like me and grew up in a rural Texas suburb.
That said, two dude-friends pointed me in an interesting direction this morning and I thought I’d write a quick post on it. Peter reminded me of one artist I forgot about and David pointed out another act I didn’t know existed (but whose work I had heard sampled on Fergie’s “Fergalicious“). Thanks, guys. That these artists were obscure female rap artists who got support from members of rap group N.W.A. should not be overlooked, especially alongside the widely-held belief that N.W.A., and the subgenre of gangsta rap that they helped pioneer, were sexist and misogynistic (and also homophobic). And I don’t want to discredit those claims, as they have considerable merit. Barring examples from Ice-T, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E’s solo careers, and Dre’s assault on Dee Barnes while still in the group, I don’t think we have to look much further than “One Less Bitch” and “She Swallowed It” off Efil4zaggin).
That said, I think this argument gets challenged by the presence Tairrie B, who was signed to Ruthless Records, who also housed N.W.A. for a time, and was mentored by Eazy-E. It gets further complicated by J.J. Fad, who originally used their initials to form the group’s name, whose debut album, Supersonic was produced by Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, and Arabian Prince’s production credits. Now, this isn’t to overlook the gendered dimensions of the mentor-protégée relationship (though it would behoove us to remember that N.W.A.’s records often contained samples of records by female artists like Lyn Collins and E.S.G.). It also isn’t to overlook Tairrie’s normative white, blonde good looks, or that her metal career further temper the waters.
But it does emphasize the oft-overlooked presence women and girls of multiple racial and ethnic categories have always had in hip-hop and the support some men in positions of power in the game have given. It may not forgive a statement like “bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks” or level the playing field, but it sure as hell complicates standard conceptions of gender roles and racial norms in hip-hop’s industrial practices.