A day before leaving my last job, I received a text message from Kristen at Dear Black Woman, that damn near made me do a spit take. It said “blog request: can you pls tell/explain the love for bon iver? particularly white ppls love for the background story of bon iver?” My reply was “That fucking guy.”
Some of this vitriol isn’t even Justin Vernon’s fault. Frankly, his brand of white boy croonery is too inoffensive to prompt any reaction from me. The same can be said of Fleet Foxes. And while I do like Grizzly Bear and Department of Eagles, my fandom isn’t such that I’d staunchly defend them the way I would, say, TV on the Radio or Vampire Weekend or the Dirty Projectors. Nor is my anti-fandom on par with how I feel about Jens Lekman, who does the nervous Woody Allen routine to curry sympathy from women and hides that he looks like a model and is probably a jerk, like Woody Allen. I only opted out of one part of Whip It!, and it’s the pool scene where the couple makes out over a Jens Lekman song. I quite like how Ellen Page’s character cut herself off the line her indie rocker love interest strung her on, but can do without that entire subplot. I kept wondering what the derby girls were up to or if Alia Shawkat was cutting AP Bio to smoke in the bathroom.
This isn’t Lekman’s fault, though. It’s easy to conflate your opinion of a musician with your assumptions about their fanbase. I’m sure lots of chauvinist dudes dismiss Sleater-Kinney as shrill because they’re feminists, which means that all their fans are humorless feminist white women. Thus, we have to take care to separate the work from its popular reception. When I say I don’t like Fleet Foxes, what I actually mean is “if Pitchfork didn’t give their debut Album of the Year status, most people would dismiss them as dad rock for CSNY fans.” When my partner’s dad says he hates Bread, he’s probably reacting against his square older brother and all the schlock he heard in the early 70s when his band was trying to make it. He can’t be reacting against “It Don’t Matter to Me” because that’s a smooth summer groove.
I’d imagine Vernon’s exile resonates with many fans as a sign of authenticity–he was able to write such personal lyrics and deliver them with so much emotion because he led a cloistered life untethered by the modern material world and central heating. That and white people like caring about things. Frankly I’m unmoved by Bon Iver’s origin story, and more than a little suspicious of a white person with the means to retreat. Survivalism came into vogue at the turn of the twentieth century with organizations like the Boy Scouts of America. It may have been intended as a way for boys and men to get in touch with nature, acquire self-sufficiency, and forge intergenerational bonds. I don’t doubt that those lessons continue to be imparted. But it also seems like a neat way for white men to run around in the woods, fetishize a particular kind of masculine ideal, and reconnect with a pioneer spirit while conveniently erasing the racial injustices placed against Native Americans and enslaved people of color. It’s easy to go camping when you don’t have to live in a tent.
I remember back in 2007, when it circulated that Vernon recorded For Emma, Forever Ago in a cabin following his band’s dissolution, an epic break-up, and a bout with mononucleosis, but didn’t seek it out. Look, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote most of Magnolia in Bill Macy’s cabin, too terrified to leave his desk. It doesn’t change that the second hour is a slog, the frog rain is gimmicky but not insufferable, and the Aimee Mann sing along is quite moving. Tom Cruise also gives one of his best screen performances.
People are obsessed with legends and origin stories. If we weren’t, Hollywood wouldn’t continue to exploit this fascination with shitty comic book movie franchises. Likewise, classic albums get integrated into the canon because of surrounding lore and myth-making. Stevie and Lindsey and John and Christine were falling apart during Rumours. Captain Beefheart handed in Trout Mask Replica in six hours. PJ Harvey lived on potatoes during Rid of Me. Kanye recorded “Through the Wire” with his jaw wired shut, which is why he has to Watch the Throne now.
I’m also reacting against the assumption that I would like Bon Iver. I certainly fit his demo–politically liberal, college radio listener, Pitchfork reader, cisgender white lady, alive when Bonnie Raitt swept the Grammys, inclined toward male romantic partners. But I reject the heteronormative assumption that my hypothetical fandom as a white woman would be tied to finding him or his music sexy. When I finally listened to “Skinny Love,” long after Bon Iver signed with Jagjaguwar and he recorded a song with St. Vincent for the Twilight soundtrack, I felt cold, tired, and manipulated. I’m partly reacting against hipster dudes outfitting themselves in rumpled men’s attire that telegraphs fucking in the woods, or at least not copping to Robbie Robertson doing it first with greater success. But the cabin in Northern Wisconsin scenario doesn’t send chills down my spine. Duran Duran recorded a song about getting it on in either an actual or metaphorical Antarctica. It’s not sexy so much as it is deeply embarrassing, though not the most embarrassing song on Liberty.
Part of this contrarianism also informs why I yelled at my TV when Netflix recommends “Independent Features with a Strong Female Lead.” I contain multitudes, Netflix! I don’t want to fit too neatly in a type. But I’m more than a little disconcerted about what that type might say about my race and gender. Just like I don’t want people to think that I believe feminism is predicated on white women’s subjugation of women of color and thus that a movie like The Help would speak to my politics, I bristle at the idea that a nerdy white lady like myself would, by definition, listen to Bon Iver. Or the Smiths. Or Belle and Sebastian. Or the Cranberries. Or that I’d instinctively champion a Miranda July movie, because, as Kristen noted in a post that addressed white lady quirk, where is the black mother of John Hawkes’ children in Me and You and Everyone We Know?
A post on Bon Iver is really a post on whiteness, because over his songs’ crisp acoustic/ambient arrangements, Justin Vernon is articulating a very messy white masculinity. Whiteness has always been at the center of rock music, and frankly it’s hard for me to tell if Vernon’s doing something radically new with collapsing folk and blue-eyed soul. In this supposedly post-racial cultural moment, it’s common for hipster-friendly musical acts to bring the two together. Justin Vernon’s British counterpart is James Blake, a white boy who gets accolades from Pitchfork for bringing his intimate singing style to an of-the-moment electronic subgenre like post-dubstep. It seems robots do cry, most likely to Joni Mitchell records.
Many of Vernon and Blake’s white peers are at home with R&B. Mayer Hawthorne can’t sing worth a damn, but that doesn’t keep him from channeling Curtis Mayfield in his bedroom studio and connecting with a large audience. Jamie Lidell brings soul music’s immediacy into the present, proving himself to be one of the most talented composers and vocalists of his generation in the process. Blake and Lidell also come from a country with a deep, problematic love for black pop music. Jamiroquai wouldn’t exist without Stevie Wonder. Simply Red’s biggest hit was a cover of a song Gamble and Huff originally wrote for Labelle. The Rolling Stones worship Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Solomon Burke. Adele is channeling Dusty Springfield, who in turn was channeling Aretha Franklin.
Lidell was also at home touring with Beck, a full-grown (white) man who’s not afraid to cry or build a bridge between James Brown, Kraftwerk, and countrypolitan. Beck came into cultural relevance in a decade when Jeff Buckley covered Mahalia Jackson, Nirvana covered Leadbelly, the Blues Explosion recorded with R.L. Burnside while being called out as modern-day minstrels, and Radiohead could count Maxwell as a fan. In her essay “The Soft Boys: The New Man in Rock,” Terri Sutton argues that alternative rock was defined by a sensitive, self-reflexive white masculinity, but it also absorbed and appropriated soul, R&B, funk, and other generic expressions associated with black artists.
As Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style suggests, Vernon might set himself apart by having black artists accept him. Kayne West brought him in for “Monster” alongside Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and built “Lost in the World” around “Lost in the Woods.” However, white artists working with artists of color is as old as popular music itself. James Taylor worked with Gilberto Gil. Hall and Oates are embraced by black and white audiences. I believe West’s articulation of a black hipster masculinity, white hipsters’ quasi-ironic, quasi-sincere, deeply nostalgic, and highly performative fan appreciation for quiet storm R&B and new jack swing, and the Internet fostering an uneasy but fascinating integration are the key distinctions.
It speaks to why Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake channeling Color Me Badd for “Dick In a Box” captured so much public attention. It speaks to why a cheesy genre like yacht rock resonates, resulting in Warren G sampling Michael McDonald, Michael McDonald covering Grizzly Bear, and the cult phenomenon of a Web series that imagined the lives of James Ingraham and Loggins and Messina and brought Wyatt Cenac into millions of homes as a Daily Show correspondent. It gets at why I’m thrilled thrilled that any oldies radio format for my generation must include Adina Howard and SWV. It also explains why Bon Iver invokes Howard Jones and Back in the High Life-era Steve Winwood for “Beth, Rest” and it’s not totally left field. And it especially speaks to why Vernon would be involved with Gayngs, a loose assemblage of musicians that includes Andrew Bird and various members of Minnesota-based hip hop collective Doomtree that claims soft rock as its primary influence.
I don’t pretend that Bon Iver will unite a people, any more I can claim that Justin Vernon’s music as my own or that his performance of white masculinity is new or interesting. But parsing out the racial politics of genre hybridization, puzzling through the elision between ironic and sincere fandom and performance, and placing Vernon in that context is better than getting lost in the woods.
It’s crazy that the movie that is the subject of this post only came out on DVD in 2008. Director Lou Adler and screenwriter Nancy Dowd‘s modest feature made its cinematic debut in 1982 (note: Dowd was credited as Rob Morton, a pseudonym the Oscar winner used from time to time — I wonder if having the illusion of a man write the script got the project off the ground). It starred Diane Lane, Ray Winstone, Laura Dern, and Christine Lahti. It featured The Clash’s Paul Simenon and Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones. It went on to influence riot grrrl and has been referenced by other musicians (see the music video for Mika Miko’s “Business Cats“).
And yet the first time I saw this movie was in a class screening. It was during the final days of grad school before the DVD’s summer release. The version I saw was a laserdisc transfer, and included 15 seconds of static from when the person recording the movie flipped the disc. Nutty, right? Kinda informs why I’m a feminist and have an ambivalent relationship with having to dig for representative media texts that I like. I’m proud of it but irritated by it at the same time. If it gets translated into snobbishness, it’s really righteous indignation.
The plot is as follows. Lane plays Corinne Burns, a teenage orphan who has to figure out how she and her sister Tracy (Marin Kanter) can support themselves after being fired from her jill job. While staying with her aunt Linda (Lahti), she starts scheming ways to start a pirate radio station that will broadcast “rock and roll and the truth.” She ends up convincing her sister and cousin Jessica (Dern, whose character prefers to be called Peg) to start a band called The Stains. After catching British punk band The Looters, a fictitious rock band fronted by Billy (Ray Winstone) and manned by bassist Simenon, drummer Cook, and guitarist Jones, Burns’s purpose is clear. She can’t just be in the audience, some chick in the crowd among pregnant teens with nicotine habits and folks squandering their youth at the piss factory. She’s gotta get The Stains on the bill. Like so many rock legends before her, she’s gotta get outta this place if it’s the last thing she ever does.
At first, Corrine tries to appeal to Billy as a fan, who is otherwise occupied with a groupie. She is then approached by The Looters’ road manager, a Rastafarian named Lawnboy (Barry Nichols) and gets The Stains booked as the opening act. It seems as though Lawnboy needs his own insurance, as the top-billed act are a has-been dinosaur rock outfit appropriately called The Metal Corpses. They’ve got a heroin addict guitar player in tow. They’re also fronted by a real charmer named Lou (played by Tubes frontman Fee Waybill). You can tell what kind of guy he is when he recounts a tryst with an older groupie acquaintance — apparently she’s as good as she ever was, but that damn kid of her’s would not stop crying and interrupting their “time” together. Class act.
Anyway, The Stains become huge and cultivate a legion of die-hard girl fans. Corpses’ guitarist Jerry Jervey (Tubes’ keyboardist Vince Welnick) inevitably dies of an overdose. This gives Burns an opportunity to spin the story and create her own mythology. Apparently Jervey loved her. She couldn’t reciprocate and he took his own life. This lie turns Burns’s band into a full-blown media sensation. Which is good, because their first gig doesn’t go so well.
But this clip, which features “Waste of Time” (penned by Barry Ford), explains why The Stains garner both an on- and off-screen feminist following (note: to preserve this image, don’t see Streets on Fire as it features Lane playing a rock star damsel in distress). The music suggests post-punk and indie’s lo-fi sensibilities and politicized amateurism. The message is blatantly feminist, and delivered through a girl’s plain-spoken sneer. This girl has as much use for pants as Lady Gaga, but her visible panties don’t mean that she puts out. She’s also equipped a replicable look and quotable opinions about how she doesn’t give a fuck about patriarchy. A star is born, and she’s after your daughters. They call themselves Skunks.
By the way, if either of the dude-friends who run the Lab want to create a Stains t-shirt, I reckon you’d have a sell-out item on your hands. I think the design should include the caption, “They’ve got such big plans for the world but they don’t include us.”
Also, make sure to add YACHT’s cover of “Waste of Time” to your next mix.
Once The Stains break, The Looters bristle at just how much they’re being overshadowed by the opening act, especially since they’re just a bunch of girls (or “birds,” since they’re British). But Billy also seems impressed with Burns. He eventually seduces her, though I doubt the genuineness of his attraction as it seems more like a power grab. He wins her over by teaching her his band’s song “Be A Professional,” a song about refusing to join the army. But their romance is promptly ended by Burns when up-and-coming act Black Randy and the Metro Squad threaten to knock The Stains off the bill. The romance is over, but she takes his song as a souvenir.
Jilted Billy nearly ruins the band by revealing Burns to be a fraud after she becomes too big for him (she becomes a superstar in a little over a week). However, her fans come through for her in the end, making The Stains a tremendously successful pop band just in time for the advent of MTV. But something tells me they’d be pressured to change the name. Some label exec would try to convince them that “The Stains” wouldn’t look good on a poster with “The Go-Gos” and “The Bangles.”
The ending is as good a place as any to address that while I like this movie, it’s far from perfect. There’s the rushed storyline that also requires a considerable suspension of disbelief. There’s the unfortunate romantic coupling between the two leads that feels completely unnecessary and without much motivation. Some of the dialogue doesn’t work and the young cast’s performances tend to be mannered. And the ending casts a dark pall on the rest of the movie. It confirms that the girls totally sold out. More essentializing sorts might read this ending as a self-fulfilling prophecy, that The Stains became what Burns pegged one disinterested female concertgoer as: just girls waiting to die.
However, I read the ending more as an indictment on how punk became new wave and how bands like The Talking Heads, The Go-Gos, and Blondie were recast by major label record executives in the process. “Be a professional, join the professionals” on MTV, as “you’re gonna be one anyway.” And when you consider that the movie was made at new wave’s zenith and the cable network’s infancy, it’s a pretty damning ending that I think is in keeping with punk’s cynical, incredulous take on human nature.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that many riot grrrls and their contemporaries who may have been inspired by this movie became professionals too. Queercore legacies Kaia Wilson and Tammy Rae Carland ran Mr. Lady for many years. Miranda July makes movies. Carrie Brownstein works for NPR. Beth Ditto has a clothing line. Kathleen Hanna is an archival subject. Johanna Fateman runs a hair salon. Of course, these are enviable jobs and social positions that work toward resisting patriarchal culture. Professionalism doesn’t have to mean compromise, but it does insure a constant process of negotiation.
But just as this movie is about young women trying to negotiate when to hold on to integrity in the working world, it is also about how they interact and influence one another. Thus, female mentorship informs much of the movie’s narrative.
The Stains are considered role models for their audience. Some commentators believe this be to their fans’ detriment, as the skunk hairdos, extreme make-up, pantsless get-ups, and disinterest toward marriage and babies assuredly will lead to wickedness (thus predicting the moral panic later waged against Madonna and her fans). Most folks who hold this opinion are male. Billy clearly espouses this opinion because he’s jealous of The Stains’ success, feels taken advantage of by Burns after she steals his song, and thinks very little of this emergent aggregate”s collective intelligence. News anchor and affirmed sexist Stu McGrath (John Lehne) thinks The Stains, and Burns in particular, are bad influences. He also seems of the opinion that they sure are sexy and naughty, which echoes how British television personality and first-rate drunk Bill Grundy seemed to feel about Siouxsie Sioux when she sat with The Sex Pistols during their infamous interview.
However, journalist Alicia Meeker (Cynthia Sikes) loves The Stains. She’s excited and inspired by their story. She also plays a part in their success by providing them coverage on local television as well as sticking up for them on the air. She’s quick to point out that these girls aren’t delinquents or degenerates. Instead, she sees them as self-sufficient individuals. She makes no bones about her partiality, and does little to hide her seething contempt for McGrath, with whom she shares a news desk.
Jessica’s Aunt Linda is interesting as well, though misses an opportunity to be a mentor. At first, she seems resistant to her daughter and nieces’ rebellion, and later dismissive of their success. But in a devastating scene that unfolds for both the band and the viewer on a television screen in the display window of an appliance store, it’s revealed in an interview that Linda is proud of them and wishes she was more encouraging. Worse yet, Linda knows all too well what it’s like to grow up in a household peopled with family members who didn’t believe she could amount to anything.
This admission makes an early scene when Linda is first introduced particularly poignant. We meet Linda in her front room, giving herself an at-home manicure with a girlfriend. The ladies break out in an a capella rendition of Carole King’s anthemic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” Linda nails the song’s high harmonies, but no one hears it. Even the girls ignored it at the time. I wonder if they reflect on it later. I hope they carry on in her memory.
Now, we’ve looked a lot at Lisa A. Lewis’s applications of access signs and discovery signs in female-address music videos. For a quick refresher, access signs are public cultural spaces typically closed off to women and girls. A good example we haven’t brought up is Lily Allen frequenting a record store and wandering the streets of London in “LDN.” Discovery signs, by contrast, are traditionally private, feminized spaces like the home, as illustrated in most of the music video for Estelle’s “1980.”
But the reality is that most women and girls navigate both the public and private spheres, a fact that the last 40 seconds of “1980” makes clear when the home opens up into the neighborhood for a block party. A fantastic example of a music video that showcases the negotiation of access and discovery signs is Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” So tonight, as I bundle up in my house and watch the pilot of Friday Night Lights after a long day at the office and some post-work errand-running, I thought it would be fun to showcase a couple of music videos that acknowledge the fluidity of movement in our daily lives.
Directed by Anthony Dickenson
The Hot Rock
Directed by Miranda July
BTW, kudos to my friend Caitlin for nudging me toward Speech Debelle. Isn’t she great?
First off, R.I.P. MJ. Something tells me that Mindy Kaling and Kelly Kapoor would want me to pay tribute.
So, my friend Christina, who works at Merge Records, posted this news item on Facebook yesterday and I thought I’d share. Mindy Kaling, writer, producer, and star of The Office, likes her indie rock. She, along with folks like Zach Galifianakis, Amy Poehler, and artists Miranda July and Kara Walker, is compiling a playlist of her favorite songs from the label’s catalog for their 20th anniversary box set! As a bonus, the proceeds from her contribution are going to Doctors Without Borders.
Kaling’s presence on the American Office is one of my favorite aspects of the series (Bitch feels similarly). To quote my friend Liz, Kelly Kapoor’s “hyper-femininity is fascinatingly funny and a window into the absurdity of what pop culture thinks women are and/or like.” Kaling is also responsible for writing some of my favorite episodes of The Office, in large part because they tend to be the most critical of male buffoonery (ex: she penned “Night Out”). She’s also developing her own show for NBC — perhaps a female buddy comedy. YAY!
In addition to which, I love that she’s into indie rock. In my limited contact with Merge personnel, they have struck me as some of the nicest, most down-to-earth people in the music industry. And it goes without saying that I’m excited that a woman of color is aligned with this Merge retrospective, as indie rock can tend to be a white man’s game.
Yay, Mindy and Merge! The box set is already sold out, so place your orders now!