Tagged: Kristen Stewart

My thoughts on “The Runaways”

Movie poster for The Runaways; image courtesy of fanpop.com

I caught a screening of The Runaways with my dear friends Curran, Masashi, and Kristen at Act Your Age. How do I put this? . . . It was terrible.

It was off to a promising start with the movie’s first image: a drop of menstrual blood. It did a good job establishing the sunny malaise of 70s Southern California, but a hackneyed and incoherent script, weak characterization, and wooden acting were evident early on. Once the band went on their first tour, the movie ran off the rails and never recovered. As a casual fan of the group in question who hasn’t read lead singer Cherie Currie’s Neon Angel (the screenplay’s source material), I didn’t leave the theater with any gained insight. And as someone who teaches rock history to girls, I have no idea what they would get out off this movie. The band’s relevance as musical pioneers is assumed and thus given no context. Furthermore, the actresses are not often shown playing instruments or working as a unit. In fact, the movie mainly focuses on founder and guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and lead singer Currie (Dakota Fanning), giving a little time to co-founder and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve), but obscuring Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Robin Blakemore (Alia Shawkat), an amalgam of the group’s many bassists.

The stars of the movie (missing is the rest of the band); image courtesy of fanpop.com

In short, I am at a loss as to the function of this movie. Who is this movie for? Why did it get made? Why is this story worth telling? As a feminist music geek, these questions are usually rhetorical. But as a jilted moviegoer two hours later, these were the questions I was left with.

I’ll elaborate more on my criticisms with the movie later in this post, but first I’d like to get in to the limits of the music biopic but why I still like watching them. Curran asked Kristen and me before the movie started what our expectations were. We said we thought there’d be some salvageable moments and maybe some good performances.

To be fair, that’s really all most music biopics deliver (I’m specifically talking about feature films here, but we could easily extend this to made-for-TV movies too). I’m not sure if any film genre scholars have written on music biopics (feel free to share any relevant texts in the comments section — I love a reading list). It seems like a genre worth evaluating, particularly since they’re often disappointing. As with all biopics, there’s always the matter of historical accuracy, warped by legends, differing accounts, flexible realities, and negotiated subjectivities. When these issues are compromised in music biopics, they often result in fans saying the filmmakers got it wrong.

Since music is such a personal thing to people — perhaps more personal than the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, although not for my mother — fandom, with or without its itinerant hero worship, identification, queerable desire, and morbid curiosity, is a critical component of music biopic reception. It’s why I saw Ray, Bird, Walk the Line, Coal Miner’s Daughter, La Vie en rose, Lady Sings the Blue, Impromptu, Sid and Nancy, Amadeus, I’m Not There, and 24-Hour Party People. It’s why I’ll see Control, The Rose, Notorious, Cadillac Records, De-Lovely, Grace of My Heart, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Last Days, Sweet Dreams, What We Do Is Secret, Bound for Glory and a myriad of others regardless of what reviews they garnered. It’s why I’ll see Elijah Wood’s turn as Iggy Pop in The Passenger if it ever gets released. Ditto for the Jeff Buckley biopic, (preferably) with or without James Franco, should it ever get off the ground.

What music fans hope to get out of a music biopic varies. Perhaps there’s hope of being faithful to the subject and source material. As someone who doesn’t mind when biopics play with history, I’m usually more interested in what aspects of their stories get highlighted and how the surrounding era is evoked, because music biopics are also period pieces. Above all, I’m interested in casting. Who is playing the musician in question?

As a film genre, music biopics are foremost star vehicles. The same can be said of biopics in general, as they can guarantee a lock for an Oscar win in the acting categories. Unlike traditional historical biographies though, music biopics tend not be the domain of directors looking to flex authorial muscle. Perhaps this has to do with value judgments placed upon rock music as being less culturally significant than, say, the life of Malcolm X, Lenny Bruce, or Jesus Christ. This doesn’t necessarily extend to concert features, as directors like Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch have them on their résumés. But the majority of music biopics are driven by the star, not the director. Regularly, Oscar nominations are given to actors who play musicians, some of whom have even won the coveted prize. Marion Cotillard won most recently for her turn as Édith Piaf in La vie en rose. It was earned, in my opinion. Her devastating performance saved a movie marred by too many tracking shots of the subject suffering in private, pacing backstage, and then taking that pain with her in performance.

Tangentially related, but opinion varies as to whether the actor should sing. My take is that if the actor can pull off the singer’s style, okay. But in general, I actually prefer hearing the original source material. There’s much to be said for an actor who can do a convincing lip sync.

But music biopics tend to be unsatisfying in execution, even if the actors do a good job. The main reason for this, I think, has to do with the genre abiding by staid storytelling conventions and taking on too much of the subject’s biography. Some music biopics have defied expectations, playing with formal convention and myth as well as pursuing alternate perspectives from folks involved with other aspects of the music industry and fans. I’d credit Michael Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People and Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There with achieving this.

I also think there’s a lot of value in focusing on a key period in a musical act’s life or career and allow this time to give the subject his or her larger sociohistoric context. I liked Stephen Frears’s The Queen in large part because it narrows its sights on the brief period of time between the election of Prime Minister Tony Blair and the death of Princess Diana and resultant grief of her loss and let those events shape the character of Queen Elizabeth II. While I haven’t seen all of Gus Van Zant’s Last Days, I wonder if dwelling on Kurt Cobain’s final moments might say more about his distress than a retelling of the events that led to Nirvana’s meteoric rise.

After the musical act in question starts touring and usually begins tasting some fame, music biopics become boring and predictable. As a result, music biopics take out the electricity from the people who wrote songs to the soundtrack of our memories. They turn their lives into plodding accounts of what become crappy day jobs as routinized and dehumanizing as cubicle-dwelling but with less relateable struggles Behind the Music already exhausted. You can play? I can play too. Hey, we got a record deal! Our song is on the radio! Look, groupies and available drugs! Ugh, touring is boring. All the cities look the same. Oh wait, here come the struggles with fame and the weight of expectations. The fame has driven a wedge between me and my fans. More drugs and probably some questionable vanity purchases. Oh no, the band isn’t getting along. Factions! We can’t replicate the magic anymore. Vices! Overdoses, which result in two outcomes. There is death, and then a celebration of legacy. There is also rehab, which is usually followed by half-hearted reunions or anonymity, often accompanied by middle-aged paunch. YAWN.

And when you focus on boys who deal with these pressures through self-medication and illicit sex with women who aren’t their partners, only to seek redemption in a mistress, a second wife, or Jesus, I really have no sympathy. I will laugh at them however, which is why I’ll get around to seeing Walk Hard, a movie that pokes fun at these conventions.

But Floria Sigismondi’s movie proves that an all-girl proto-punk band can be just as boring as any man in rock music. And now, let’s launch into my problems with The Runaways.

1. The script. This is the movie’s biggest problem. Given that this is director Sigismondi’s first feature, it is also her first screenwriter credit. Early into the movie, I had flashes of Mark Romanek’s One-Hour Photo. Like Sigismondi, Romanek proved his mettle as an innovative music video director before he made directorial debut. And while that helped both directors establish an aesthetic style, it didn’t help develop their writing skills. Because . . . oh boy, is Sigismondi’s script marred with clunky dialogue, incoherent tonal shifts, and unfounded character motivation. So often, the movie launches into important developments with little explanation or context. How did the girls discover rock and roll for themselves? Why were there homelives unsatisfying? Why did the girls form a band? How they function as a unit? How did they handle detractors? How did they interact with other bands? What was their relationship with label employees, road crews, journalists, fans, and the number of folks they encountered? How popular were they in the United States? How popular were they abroad? Why were they so beloved in Japan? Perhaps this has to do with a reliance on the movie’s audience to know the band’s backstory. Perhaps this has to do with legal intervention as well, which might explain how little screen time Sandy West, Lita Ford, and the bassists get.

And sometimes Sigismondi’s career as a director encroaches too much on her work in this feature. Bathtubs becoming lagoons? Jett writing a song in a milk bath? Currie calling her sister at an abandoned phone booth in some random abandoned parking lot? It looks cool, but doesn’t really convey any information.

2. The movie isn’t gay enough. Now, to be fair, I was surprised at how gay it was — just like I was happy about Currie’s menstrual blood and Jett urinating on a sexist musician’s guitar. And while I think that Stewart is basically playing Jett as Shane McKutcheon from The L-Word, I believe her baby butch swagger. But a lot is hinted at and insinuated where fan and pro-sex feminist Susie Bright knew there were explicitly gay or queer things were happening at the time. And when Sigismondi pervades Jett and Currie’s sex scene with red lights, slow motion, close-ups on open mouths, off-kilter camera angles, and soft focus, it enforces Currie’s wastedness, thus perpetuating the notion that women and girls have to be inebriated to be intimate with one another. FAIL.

3. The matter of the leads. I don’t want to play the game of pitting one actress against another, as each part has its own demands. And both actresses are at a tenuous point at their career, transitioning from child stars to leading ladies. Interestingly, they’ve also been a part of the Twilight series and seem to be using the money they’ve earned from the franchise to subsidize less commercial fare like this movie.

In truth, I wasn’t wowed by either actress. To their credit, it’s hard to make lines like “I’m thinking with my cock” and “I thought we were your fucked-up family” beat the page. Furthermore, they’re given little motivation for their characters. What possesses Jett to pick up a guitar, much less link up with Svengali Kim Fowley? Why does Currie spiral into addiction and despair? For Currie, a negligent family with a history of substance abuse might be the reason, as might intimations that she was raped while on tour. But the actresses aren’t given much to work with. Jett scowls. Currie rolls her eyes like a Valley Girl. And neither of them convey for me the dynamism their characters possessed onstage.

4. Sexism and misogyny. Again, I was amazed that these issues were acknowledged at all, though they are crucial to the telling of this band’s story. Furthermore, it was interesting to see how the movie dealt with the public and the band’s conflicting feelings about their sexuality and agency over their own objectification as jailbait hellcat rebels. But the script puts too fine a point on how icky and regressive and threatening men were to young girls trying to break into the music industry. At the same time, it provides little context as to why these attitudes were prevalent and if The Runaways changed them at all and how. And why would these girls put up with Fowley’s abuse? Do age and gender have anything to do with it? Assuredly, but the movie doesn’t develop these issues further.

To actor Michael Shannon’s credit, I think he does a credible job with Fowley. As the movie tends to reduce the character to a series of random antics, feel free to watch his interview on Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show. Note to how little Jett talks, how often she is interrupted and cut off, and how often Fowley speaks for her and the band. I think these interjections and silence speak volumes of the sort of industry sexism Jett had to deal with.

Having said all this, am I happy and pleasantly surprised that this movie got made? Yes. Do I wish it could be better? Of course. Do I think the story of The Runaways and a myriad of other bands should be told? Absolutely. I still recommend seeing this movie. And if it gets people interested in the members’ music and their history, along with the careers of the movie’s director and stars, even better. I’ll close with a recollection of a scene from the movie: Jett visits Currie in the hospital following the lead singer’s free-fall into addiction. Jett informs Currie that she read about an all-girl band forming in Korea. “They suck,” Jett maintains, “but it’s still pretty cool.” My sentiments exactly.

The long-awaited Runaways trailer is finally here!

We are the band and they're making a movie about us; image courtesy of toolegittoquit.tumblr.com

The Runaways biopic trailer is up on the Interwebz. I know about it thanks to Courtney, who posted this article to our friend Annie’s Facebook page. I’ve been at attention for any news about it for months, so I just had to rush out and write a post. What do we all think?

Admittedly, it looks like a standard rock biopic trailer that actually doesn’t reveal too much about the band. We know from the trailer that the girls were in a band, the rock industry in the 1970s was dominated by men, and The Runaways had a male manager who wore glam eye make-up (Kim Fowley, played by Michael Shannon who was excellent in Revolutionary Road).

While we see that Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) may have gone through some inner turmoil, we don’t see any acting scenes from the girls. In fact, we don’t hear the actresses deliver any lines of dialogue and I’m not sure if they’re actually playing (though I hope they are and speculate that Dakota Fanning did her own singing as Cherie Currie). The only spoken words we hear are all from adult men. So that’s a bummer.  

I’m also curious as to how the movie will navigate the band’s myriad of replacement bassists and how this may be informed by Jackie Fox and Joan Jett’s legal disagreements.

Nonetheless, I’m fucking stoked. Can’t wait to see these girls. Looking forward to Alia Shawkat, who makes an appearance as one of the band’s bass players. Also looking out for Scout-Taylor Compton, who plays Lita Ford and played Laurie Strode in the Rob Zombie Halloween remakes (proud aside: the second installment of the series featured a dear friend of mine). So I hope these ladies (including Kristen, Dakota, and Floria) rock that shit.

Robin Tunney double feature: “Empire Records” and “The Craft”

Wait, some of you might be thinking. Who is Robin Tunney?

Robin Tunney; image courtesy of tvdramas.about.com

I think Tunney was slated to be a star when she started cropping up in movies in the 1990s. While stardom didn’t happen for her, she’s had steady work, currently starring on The Mentalist, a CBS procedural. She was supposed to co-write a book on feminism with her friend Liz Phair, with whom she worked on the movie Cherish. I’m still waiting for that last one.

For many in my age group, we know her from back-to-back appearances in Empire Records and The Craft. As both movies were slumber party staples in my friend group, featured teen girl characters, and were accompanied by popular soundtracks, I knew I’d need to revisit them.

Empire Records came out in 1995 and developed a bit of a cult following, despite poor reviews and a dismal box office performance. It also instilled a personal desire to work at a record store, particularly an indie fighting to stay that way. At 13, it looked so cool and fun to “work” all day at such a place with hip teens and twentysomethings.

Well, maybe not them specifically, as the characters in Empire Records aren’t believeable as people so much as underwritten Generation X versions of cool kids dreamt up by a team of movie executives: there’s Joe, the anti-establishment boomer-era owner (Anthony LaPaglia); Lucas, the Zen-like hipster (Rory Cochrane); A.J., the sensitive artist in love with the unattainable Corey (Johnny Whitworth); Corey, the wholesome speed freak perfectionist (Liv Tyler); Gina, Corey’s slutty best friend who wants to be in a band (Renée Zellweger); Mark, the stoner (Ethan Embry); Berko, the rocker who clocks in between gigs (Coyote Shivers, who was married to Tyler’s legendary mother Bebe Buell at the time); and Debra, the rebel girl accountant who shaves her head after attempting suicide (Tunney).

Oh, they are so selling out; image courtesy of chartrigger.blogspot.com

The writing is the movie’s biggest problem, though I’ll never understand why casting directors thought someone as boring as Tyler would ever be a huge star (I’d ask this question again later in the decade when Katie Holmes started landing movie roles). The motivations of the characters, though meant to be read as young and madcap, are childish and inconsistent. The boys pine after girls, eat pizza, get high, and glue quarters to the floor. The girls pine after has-been teen idols doing in-stores, alternate between loving and hating each other, and get together with the boys who pine after them. Both sexes deliver such profound lines like “If I can love her in that skirt, than this must really be it” and “I went to rock and roll heaven, and I wasn’t on the guest list.”

That second line is the answer given to a question about bandaged wrists. It’s delivered to withering effect by Debra, potentially the movie’s most interesting character. She’s not glamourous like her female co-workers or sophomoric like her male colleagues. She also seems to have gone through real pain, deeper than the surface angst used to promote OK Soda and perhaps closer to the actual pain brought on by parental neglect and low self-esteem. In the early 1990s, these and other issues were particularly relevant to young girls, some of whom would form or discover riot grrl and queercore and develop their own queer and/or feminist identities. We only get a sense of Debra’s absent mother, resistent intellect, boredom with men, feelings of inadequacy, and the hope for something better.

Note: I’d recommend watching director Allan Moyle’s far-superior Times Square. Rest assured that the tale of two girl runaways falling in love amidst downtown New York’s early-80s squalor will get its due on this blog.   

It’s weird that slashed wrists bridge Tunney’s two major performances to date. Clearly suicide, perhaps most unfortunately personified by Kurt Cobain, was on young people’s minds at the time. I’d hedge that this has more to do with class frustration, racial injustice, conflicted feelings about sexual orientation, coming out to unsupportive families and communities, dysfunctional home lives, and a lack of any real support system. I’d also add that it’s an on-going problem.

Absent mothers also connect Debra and Sarah, the latter of whom lost her mother during childbirth. As The Craft was originally pitched as “Carrie meets Clueless,” it seems necessary to point out that these movies feature girls with compromised mother-daughter relationships. Carrie’s mother is a crazed witch. Cher Horowitz, like so many other fairytale heroines before her, lost her mother at an early age and has only an idealized memory of her. Sarah has similar baggage, along with the additional burden of being responsible for her mother’s death. Oh, and carrying on the ability to perform witchcraft. That’s a hell of a lot for any teenage girl to shoulder, especially when she’s moving to Los Angeles with her family.     

A heartening aspect of The Craft , no doubt motivated by how successful Clueless was, is the presence of girlfriends. Sarah meets shy Bonnie (played by Neve Campbell) and becomes friends with a trio of Goth girls. Two other movies came out in 1996 that focused on girl gangs — Girls Town and Foxfire. For a more nuanced analysis of these two movies and their depictions of homosociality and developing feminist politics, I highly recommend checking out my friend Kristen’s thesis Revenge, Girl Style

The Craft entertains the progressive potential of girl friendship, particularly for outcasts. There are also hints at the queer possibilities of homosocial bonding and witchcraft. It even contains racially charged moments, particularly when Rochelle (played by Rachel True), the coven’s lone African American member, casts a spell on Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor), a popular blonde who is on the swim team with her. After enduring Lizzie’s racist comments about her hair, Rochelle turns her bald, thus rebelling against normative, white-centric notions of feminine beauty. 

But these suggestions are sidelined. Because what the movie is really about is the battle between Tunney’s kind-hearted Sarah and Fairuza Balk’s destructive ringleader Nancy, who is jealous of her frenemy’s natural aptitude for witchcraft. It should also be noted that Nancy is working-class and coded as queer. The movie makes a considerable effort to undo her queerness, putting men in between her and Sarah, whether they be ex-boyfriends or Manon, the supernatural male figure that the girls worship. The movie ends with Nancy trying to kill Sarah, resulting in a showdown that tears the group apart, causes Sarah to move, and leads to Nancy being institutionalized. The final shot is of Nancy in a straight-jacket trying to fly out of a padded cell. The movie’s message: we are the weirdos, mister. Just don’t expect us to stay friends or keep a hold of our sanity. So much for sisterhood.

Nancy's farewell; image courtesy of channel4.com

Sisterhood is often lacking in movies, but is emphasized to market teen movies, if only to tap in to the girl market. But much of this was eclipsed in story development to make way for more lucrative prospects, none more pronounced at the time than the soundtrack. A considerable number of American teen movies in the 1990s featured a soundtrack, many boasting songs by alternative rock artists. Unlike The Craft and Empire Records, and more in line with All Over Me, Girls Town and Foxfire paid particular attention toward showcasing female artists, particularly those closely associated with hip hop and the then-waning riot grrrl movement. Scholars like Jeff Smith and Mary Celeste Kearney have addressed this in their work, theorizing that the soundtrack served as a way to cultivate potential audience markets and a source of textual identification for fans.

While female artists are present on the soundtracks to Empire Records and The Craft, they’re not the focus, perhaps out of fear of alienating a broader audience. This might further explain why The Craft soundtrack features covers of popular songs from lesser-known acts. Our Lady Peace contributes a version of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Heather Nova covers Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch,” and Letters To Cleo take on The Cars’ “Dangerous Type,” a tactic they’d repeat when covering Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” for 10 Things I Hate About You at the end of the decade. And let’s not forget the double-nostalgia of former Psychelic Furs’ front man Richard Butler covering The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” with his post-Furs project Love Spit Love. 

Cover to "The Craft" soundtrack (Sony, 1996); image courtesy of thesoundtracktoyourlife.co.uk

A major problem both of these movies share, and is evident in other titles of this period and in the Brat Pack movies of the 1980s, is the need to broadly define its characters as members of a generation, rather than as complex young people with particular problems oftentimes informed by their identities. And while ennui and an ironic fluency in popular culture were markers for Gen X, these young adults were more than just sneering (white) kids in flannel, combat boots, and barettes. At least off-camera.

Oftentimes, they were frustrated by how little high school and a liberal arts education could get them in a job market, particularly during the late 1980s and early 1990s when the economy had yet to recover from the 1987 market crash. They were annoyed at the shrine their parents built to the 1960s, as it was clear just how empty and hollow their promises of revolution were. In some ways, they were no different than people my age or boomer hipster Paul Kinsey on Mad Men, turning to interesting records, movies, books, and TV shows, but knowing they wouldn’t make them any happier, politically mobile, or economically viable.

Michael Gladis as Paul Kinsey, proving the every generation has its hipster; image courtesy of readingunderthecovers.blogspot.com

Some of these people formed bands, often annointed with glossy but unremarkable one-word monikers: Sponge, Drill, Lustre, Cracker, Elastica, Spacehog, Dig, Hole, Belly, Hum, Bush, Toadies, Oasis . . . In a particularly cruel example of market imperative, many of these bands broke up or were without major label record deals by the end of the decade.

I still have Elastica's debut album!; image courtesy of forgottenfavorite.com

But it’s hard to convey all of this in a 90-minute movie, especially one that hopes to cash in on the wages of the very demographic these popcorn flicks were hoping to represent. Some did a decent job of conveying this generation’s ambivalence, particularly indies like Kicking and Screaming. I’d also add that Reality Bites highlights these problems, even pointing out the crass ways in which corporate America capitalizes on the very market its created. While I wish Winona Ryder’s filmmaker character Lalaina didn’t end up with Ethan Hawke’s slacker Troy, I understand why she can’t be with Michael (played by director Ben Stiller), who works for an MTV-type network that makes worm’s meat out of her documentary about her friends. 

Richard Linklater’s second feature, Dazed and Confused, did a considerable job at suggesting that Generation X inherited their sense of slacker frustration (and detached nostalgia for Schoolhouse Rock and The Brady Bunch) from their parents. That Linklater cast a bunch of twentysomething unknowns like Joey Lauren Adams, Ben Affleck, Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg, Jason London, Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, and Marisa Ribisi to essentially play the teenagers and young adults who would become their parents may strengthen Robin Wood’s argument that Dazed is a horror film

Some television shows also did a good job articulating the nuances of the slacker era. I’d offer up British programs like Spaced, along with MTV’s Daria and ABC’s My So-Called Life. The latter featured an angsty girl protagonist, complex teenage characters, depicted boomer parents being just as clueless and angsty as their brood, and created an immortal stoner heartthrob named Jordan Catalano (played by Jared Leto), whose band Frozen Embryos changed their name at the end of the series to perhaps the most perfect of Gen X band names: Residue.

Angela Chase (Claire Danes) with the object of her affection; image courtesy of thefbomb.org

But it’s always different for girls, and unfortunate that Tunney and many of the actresses of her generation were not given the consideration they deserved (though I love that Austin Chronicle writer Margaret Moser fancies herself as being like Balk’s character in Almost Famous). Some may attribute this to their flat delivery or lack of believability, but I’d wager that this has more to do with poor character development on the part of screenwriters and the industrial emphasis on youth than it does on the actresses. At 19, Kristen Stewart is playing the slouched-shoulder ingenue of a multi-million-dollar film franchise, its latest installment complete with a soundtrack featuring of-the-moment, indie and indie-friendly artists like Bon Iver, St. Vincent, Lykke Li, Grizzly Bear, and Thom Yorke. I only hope she has that sort of star power at 25.

Kristen Stewart at the "New Moon" premiere in Los Angeles; image courtesy of justjared.buzznet.com

Joanna Newsom and Rodarte

Joanna Newsom in Armani; image courtesy of wmagazine.com

So W just dropped news that Joanna Newsom has a proper follow-up to Ys and the subsequent Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band EP, the particulars to which twentyfourbit.com elaborated, all of which I know about thanks to GRCA’s Emily Marks.

Now, I’m not sure why it’s taking her so long to make another full-length, which I’m assuming Drag City is releasing. Some might speculate that her hiatus might be due to her relationship with SNL‘s Andy Samberg. And while I have no problem with giving Samberg a good feminist hard time, I’m not entirely sure if her absence can be attributed to playing house. With recent appearances in trendy fashion magazines like W, much as she did earlier in her career with publications like PAPER, I think it might have something to do with playing dress-up.

The boys of Lonely Island with their dates at the 61st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards; image courtesy of aceshowbiz.com

Yikes! I realize those last two sentences might have infantilized the singer, something choruses of music critics do any time they call her voice “child-like.” What I mean is that Newsom has been mingling in the fashion world. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a long-haired, full-lipped, leggy white lady recording artist can get designers to take notice. However, I find it particularly interesting who she’s syncing up with, how this might help construct her image, and what all this might suggest about the commodification of indie. Because she’s not just putting on Armani. She’s friends with Rodarte, waxing pretentious about the collaborative process and wearing their designs to in-the-know, downtown fêtes. 

Joanna Newsom representing Rodarte's Fall 2008 collection; image courtesy of obsoleteantics.blogspot.com

Sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who created a label honoring their mother’s maiden name, Rodarte, have made quite a splash in the fashion world and on the red carpet over the past few years. They seem like cool ladies with whom I’d definitely want to watch some movies. Yet I’m still on the fence about their decidely avant-garde design aesthetic. I almost like a lot of it, but it gets way too drapey and twee at times — particularly when factoring in the cost.

Natalie Portman and Reese Witherspoon‘s dresses for the 2009 Oscars were vivid shades of pink and blue, but the knotty bodice patterns and woozy detailing made me a bit nauseous. Similar situation with the dress Tilda Swinton wore for a premiere of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — loved the color palette, wanted to rip off the sleeves. And in theory, I like the Rodarte sweater Kristen Stewart wore in last January’s Teen Vogue, but in actual practice, I have a hunch that I could find some moth-eaten angora free of charge if I just brave the family attic. 

Cute sweater or is Kristen Stewart just wearing the empress's new cardigan?; image courtesy of flickr.com

That said, I like that Rodarte work with retailers like the Gap and Target to make their clothes more accessible and affordable. And they have made some killer, coveted items that I’d snap up if I had the money.

Reese Witherspoon's minty fresh Rodarte minidress; image courtesy of girladvantage.com

Michelle Obama wore a 2007 Rodarte dress to meet with Queen Rania in April 2009; image courtesy of paulrfrost.blogspot.com

But Newsom and Rodarte seems an interesting match. Though musicians pairing up with designers is nothing new (see also: Cher and Bob Mackie, Madonna and Jean-Paul Gaultier, Courtney Love and Christina Aguilera representing Versace, M.I.A. representing Marc Jacobs), something seems pretty perfect with the alignment here. Perhaps with the three ladies’ talk about collaborative processes, we’ll get to see a Newsom-designed collection, as we did with Chloë Sevigny’s 2008 collection for Opening Ceremony.

Chloë Sevigny models her own designs for Opening Ceremony, convincing this blogger that t-shirts can be successfully paired with strapless dresses; image courtesy of stylefrizz.com

This pairing might be read alongside what commercial ventures Newsom has entertained. In an era that has seen many independent artists rely upon advertising and television shows to get their music heard, Newsom’s music has been featured in several places. Often she has elected that her music be used in documentary work. However, The Milk-Eyed Mender‘s “Sprout and the Bean” was featured in Victoria’s Secret’s Dream Angels ad campaign. Note that her voice is not heard in this spot.

Or it could be that a dress is just a dress. Which is fine too. But while I’m excited about hearing Newsom’s new album, I’ll have two labels on my mind when it comes out: Drag City and Rodarte.

Music Video Auteuses: Floria Sigismondi

Through a glass darkly; Christina Aguilera, as captured by Floria Sigismondi in the music video for Hurt

Through a glass darkly; Christina Aguilera, as captured by Floria Sigismondi in the music video for "Hurt"

As readers of the blog may know, I’ve been keeping my eyes and ears on the Kristen Stewart/Dakota Fanning Runaways biopic. While you may know the leads, the director and screenwriter may not be as much of a household name. But hopefully that will change, as first-time feature director Floria Sigismondi has been making amazing music videos since the early 1990s. Some of her more famous titles include Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” The White Stripes’ “Blue Orchid,” and Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter.” Also, Sigur Rós’s “Untitled #1” knocks me breathless each time I see it. 

In keeping with the spirit of the blog, I thought I’d focus on the female musicians Sigismondi has worked with (click on the artists’ names). Also, having read a delightful post on music videos inspired by horror films from my friend Caitlin at Dark Room, I thought I’d continue in the spirit.

Christina Aguilera
Back to Basics

Fiona Apple
“O Sailor”
Extraordinary Machine

Martina Topley-Bird
Quixotic (retitled Anything upon re-release)

“John 2/14”
Rough Dreams

Amel Larrieux
“Get Up”
Infinite Possibilities

Sheryl Crow
“Anything But Down”
The Globe Sessions

“Black Eye”
Black Eye

A close shave: Rihanna’s new ‘do

Rihanna's new hairdo; image provided by New York Daily News

Rihanna's new hairdo; image provided by New York Daily News

So, I’ve been tracking coverage of Rihanna’s new haircut (yes, it was considered news by many in the blogosphere). Last week, she updated her trademark edgy pixie cut with a shaved base. Perhaps people are so used to her short hair or the new cut looks fairly similar, but I haven’t noticed much of a hubbub. I guess because of the to-do over Kristen Stewart’s Joan Jett mullet, I was expecting more of a stir. Perhaps a homophobic panic. More specifically, I anticipated potential linkages made between the hair change and speculation over her dealings with ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, as last month they agreed to a court-ordered separation agreement following Brown’s much-reported assault against Rihanna last March.

However, most people seem to be pro to neutral with Rihanna’s haircut (Bossip is an exception). And I guess that’s good. I like the hairstyle. If she wanted to go bald, that’d be cool with me too. It’s so strange to think that she still once had a long, tumbling mane of hair, perhaps a hold-over from her beauty queen days as she transitioned into her current cultural role as pop star. I definitely prefer her with short hair; it maximizes her features, suits the dark robotic edge of her synth pop, and queers her in some interesting ways. Perhaps it gets us a little closer to style icon Debbi from Repo Man.

Rihanna with long hair, back in October 2007; image courtesy of People

Rihanna with long hair, back in October 2007; image courtesy of People

But I’m also curious as to the racial dimensions of Rihanna’s haircut, and what the shave may mean. I admittedly don’t know much about hair and women of color, other than an awareness that hair is both a source of contention and a space for play, particularly for women of African descent. Indeed, the Barbadan pop star’s decision to shave her head is culturally very different from, say, Tilda Swinton, requesting a buzz job. Some detractors of Rihanna’s new ‘do may perhaps read the shortening, straightening, sculpting, and now, buzzing of her hair as a disavowal of her “natural” hair. They may read pop singer Cassie’s half-shaved look or model Amber Rose’s bleached buzz cut similarly.

Of course, subscribing to this reading blindsides the multicultural aspects of this discussion. Rihanna is from Barbados, a Caribbean island with integrated African, Middle Eastern, and European communities. Within those communities exist several more ethnically distinct cultural origins. Thus, while Rihanna’s accent marks her as Barbadan, what that identity is in terms of racial and ethnic categories is far more difficult to extract. Furthermore, Cassie is of African American, Filipino, West Indian, and Mexican heritage. Amber Rose is of Italian and Cape Verdian descent (at least that’s what Wikipedia told me). So they both exist within and outside of African American identities.

I admit I don’t have answers. And, as a white woman, it’s easy for me to say “Rihanna shaved her head — cool,” which is not my intention. Instead, I’m submitting this post as a conversation-starter, a point of entry to talk and think more critically about the dimensions of racial, ethnic, and gender identities. It may seem like “just hair,” but its supposed obviousness and frivolousness demands more critical inquiry.

Kristen Stewart’s new hair

Kristen Stewart to play Joan Jett

Kristen Stewart to play Joan Jett

Have we all seen Kristen Stewart’s new haircut? I for one love it. Some people have been hatin’ on her new ‘do on the Interwebz. And, really, c’mon.

1. Stewart’s playing Joan Jett. During her time in the Runaways. In the mid-1970s. This was what her hair looked like. It’s kinda still what her hair looks like. Further, this is what a lot of girls’ hair looked like in 1975, including other members of the Runaways. I hope Dakota Fanning also got her hair cut to play lead singer Cherie Currie.

The Runaways; from left to right: Joan Jett, Sandy West, Cherie Currie, Vickie Blue, Lita Ford

The Runaways; from left to right: Joan Jett, Sandy West, Cherie Currie, Vickie Blue, Lita Ford

2. I like Kristen Stewart. She was great in Adventureland and she seems to have a relaxed attitude toward her role as Bella in Twilight — perhaps playing Bella Swan is one for them and playing Joan Jett is one for her.
2A. I also like to think when Stewart was offered the part, she asked “Do I get to cut my hair?”
3. Sure, you could throw a wig on Kristen, but she looks hot. Not hot despite the mullet. Hot with the mullet.

Also, I can’t help but read some queer panic in some folks’ disapproval of the haircut alongside Joan Jett’s queer identity. Take Popcrunch. In addition to including an unflattering photo when they posted the news, they made an effort to contrast Joan Jett’s mullet, which they don’t like, alongside Bella Swan’s damsel mane, which they hope Stewart will return to once the movie wraps.

And while I have some music nerd doubts about the Runaways biopic, I’m heartened because a) few music biopics are about female artists, b) those that exist tend to be about (self-destructive) solo artists and not about bands, c) even fewer tend to be about teenage girls in bands, d) Joan Jett is a feminist dykon, e) Stewart and Fanning are around the same ages as Jett and Currie, and f) the movie marks the screenwriting and directorial debut of Floria Sigismondi, a female music video director who got her start working with Marilyn Manson and shot one of my favorite Christina Aguilera clips.

So, kudos to you, the living legend you’re portraying, and your present company, Kristen. If you wanna keep your mullet after the movie wraps, I support you 110%.