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 recently watched Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown for the first time. Overall, I really enjoyed it. I seem to remember folks being very underwhelmed by it, but as someone who’s always been what we could call “appreciative” of the guy’s work (re: I’m not in love), I think I was pretty receptive to it.
I remember this movie was coolly received in the wake of the cultural maelstrom that was Pulp Fiction. I wonder if the “meh” feelings some folks seemed to have toward the movie may have to do with how jarring the decided lack of on-screen violence and spattered blood may be compared to the rest of Tarantino’s filmography, especially his first two films, which established his enfant terrible persona and preceded Jackie Brown.
My enjoyment of Jackie Brown is met with some reservations. My biggest problem is that — source material notwithstanding, as I haven’t read Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch and thus don’t know how he wrote Jackie Burke — I would have liked Pam Grier to kick more ass. At the beginning of the movie, flight attendant Brown is arrested for smuggling drugs for crooked gun runner Ordell Robbie (played by Samuel L. Jackson). After he bails her out, she catches wise to him setting her up and threatens him with a gun. But that’s really the extent of any physical displays of whup-assery.
It just seems weird to cast Grier as a means of hailing her stardom via 70s blaxploitation films and then not have her fuck some shit up. If John Travolta dances in Pulp Fiction, Grier can shoot a cop, rather than work with them to set up Robbie. She may use them and run off with Robbie’s money, but she got zoomed before she zooms the system.
That said, I love Grier as Jackie Brown. She’s tough yet vulnerable, a woman who has lived her life on the margins as an African American women and is trying hard to make it out of an unfair situation with her dignity.
Yet, at the same time, she’s proud and has a clear sense of who she is. One of those things, as Robert Miklitsch notes in his Screen article, is a record collector, whose predilection for the funk, soul, and R&B of her youth (i.e., primarily from the 1970s). I think her love of this music and devotion to vinyl potentially orients her as an author or source for the movie’s sound.
In a key scene I wish I could find for you readers, she defines herself for her bail bondsman and potential paramour, Max Cherry (played by Robert Forster) through song. The track is The Delfonics’ “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time.” Miklitsch reads this as Brown’s stubbornness to break from the past. I, on the other hand, read it as a firm declaration of who she is.
Thinking about Brown’s love and fluency with records is important. For one, it breaks up the tacit assumption that record collectors (real or mediated) are male. Scholars like Pamela Robertson Wojcik and Robyn Stillwell have contended the traditional gendering of male record collectors by analyzing mediated representations of female record collectors, but their examples tend to be white women and girls. Thus, Brown complicates the idea of who a record collector is while also promoting artists of color through generic preferences. You’ll note that she only listens to vinyl and, by implication, primarily listens to work by African American artists.
Of course, Jackie Brown may be the music selector within the movie but director Quentin Tarantino probably had more of a hand in picking which songs he would work with (though, interestingly, he doesn’t do as much virtuosis framing and editing of sound with image here as with, say, Reservoir Dogs, where he indelibly altered how many viewers would remember Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You”). In Jackie Brown, a lot of the songs simply exist in a scene, creating a mood or an atmosphere, or providing an orientation point, usually for the heroine.
At the same time, having a white dude center an entire soundtrack around vintage funk, soul, and R&B (and hail the blaxploitation) is not without its problems. The same can be said for Tarantino’s put-on “black” voice when announcing that “Pam Grier is Jac-kie Browwwn” in the trailer. Clearly Tarantino wishes he could be black, for however limited a time and in whatever essentialized capacity.
One may aver that Robert Forster’s character listening to The Delfonics is, like Tarantino, aligning himself with black culture, but I read his engagement — buying the tape and playing it repeatedly in the car — as a way to get closer to Brown, who seems to love her for who she is.
So, the music here really evokes a feeling, a sensibility and, in Jackie Brown’s case, character. And if the soundtrack celebrates a golden age in black music, it’s largely because Ms. Brown pledged allegiance to it. Brown is shaped by this era, specifically by plaintive yet funky classics like Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” which bookends the movie, yet takes on different meanings wholly dependent on how Brown is feeling. Here it is at the beginning, as she starts her work day.
And here it is again, at the end of her story, as she embarks on a journey to Spain. It will be a solo flight, as Cherry refuses her invitation (note that he’s a little scared of her). As she leaves him behind, she may be rueful, lip-syncing the words to the plaintive song. But I have no doubt that her records will affirm her resilience.
As a means to enrich my interest in girl groups, I’ve been looking for literature on the subject. One book my thesis adviser recommended was English writer Charlotte Greig’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?: Girl Groups from the 50s on . . ., which covers the girl group era (roughly 1960-1964) from both sides of the Atlantic, as well as girl groups that predated the era and formed (and continue to form) in the wake of its legacy.
I liked this book fine. It’s a good primer for folks just getting into girl groups (I’d certainly assign the chapters on the Brill Building or Motown to an undergrad class on gender and music culture). It’s smart and celebratory yet critical of the gender politics of girl groups without alienating a reader not hip to, say, Judith Butler’s thoughts on gender performativity. Greig also employs her trade skills as a journalist, so there’s lots of neat and valuable first-person accounts from folks like Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich and members of the Marvelettes and the Velvelettes. And there’s lots of fascinating tidbits Greig throws in that could be spun into their own books. For example:
Did you know that American Bandstand started as a radio show on WFIL in Philadelphia, on the outskirts of town? Did you know that it became a television show because bored Italian American teenage girls from the neighboring West Catholic High School would hang out after school and start dancing to the records? Did you also know that existing within this group were class tensions that were easily reflected in girls’ particular clothes and hairdos? I certainly didn’t.
Perhaps unsurprising, but did you know that Brill Building songwriter/producer Ellie Greenwich worked with her husband Jeff Barry, who elbowed her out of songwriting and production credits because he assumed he’d be the breadwinner while she had the babies? They divorced. 😦
Did you know that almost all of the girl groups Greig discusses (and/or interviews) failed to be compensated for their services? Perhaps unsurprising when you consider the larger context of the early days of rock music and its shady legal dealings with publishing and recording rights, but pretty important when considering the supposed “disposability” of girl groups.
Did you know that Reparata from Reparata and the Delrons (one of the best-named girl groups of the golden era) got her name from a saint? Kinda fascinating. I’d read an entire book on girl groups and Catholicism!
Did you know about that the role the British Invasion had in dismantling the girl group era was largely a myth? Many believe that English rock groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and their brethren were responsible for the demise of the girl group era (which is poor history, as you can see American acts like The Beach Boys, The Temptations, and The Supremes right up there with The Fab Four on the pop charts). Greig does well to remind her audience that groups like The Beatles were actually inspired by girl groups and covered many girl group songs. Instead, Greig attributes pre-mature folds of girl group songwriting factories like the Brill Building out of fear that the British Invasion would spell their demise.
Did you know that there were class differences between the girl groups at Motown? I certainly didn’t but, again, it makes sense. According to other groups like The Marvelettes, The Supremes were given unequal treatment at the record label because they were savvy, culturally-aware city girls. Other groups were comprised of country girls who didn’t grow up in Detroit and, thus, were not as hip or poised.
But these gems, which are often dropped without too much comment, speaks to my biggest problem with the book: it is simply too broad. And at just over 200 pages with a scant bibliography, the fact that she covers so much ground without digging deeper really left me wanting.
That said, I think this book does a noble job broadening the definition of what a girl group is. Greig’s principle mission, as she defines from the outset, is to dispense with the myth that girl groups were born in 1960 and died in 1964. She maintains that girl groups started forming post-World War II and are still forming and recording today (“today” meaning the late 1980s at the time of her writing).
She also argues that girl groups are not adherent to a particular genre, which, read alongside the Rhino girl group box set, seems very true. The girl group sound was actually not one singular generic entity but incorporated R&B, pop, soul, folk, and the blues. Thus, after the 1960s, when the girl group legacy endured, groups would revisit it while folding in reggae, disco, punk, funk, electronic music, and many other styles. And, as girl groups evolved, Greig argues that sometimes they became more politically minded. Particularly in the 70s, funk-based girl groups like Honey Cone tended to endorse a “black is beautiful” agenda.
And acts like LaBelle expanded how black could be beautiful by incorporating the (traditionally white, male) glam- and art-rock stylings of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. However, my partner is quick (and right) to point out that Funkadelic adopted a similar performance style at around the same time, so let’s view LaBelle and Funkadelic alongside one another.
Punk bands like Blondie and The Slits became more makeshift in their look and self-reflexive and parodic in their approach to addressing femininity and consumer culture in their songs. But I feel like Greig gives more focus toward Blondie, so lets look at The Slits more closely.
I do find it a little disconcerting that The Runaways, The Bangles, and The Go-Gos are largely broadsided in this discussion. If two of Greig’s principle concerns with girl groups are: 1) they tend not to have female instrumentalists and 2) they tend to be controlled by male managers and producers, it would have been nice to see her discuss girl bands who encountered and had (varying degrees of) success breaking free from male control.
This omission makes Greig’s inclusion of Vanity 6 and Mary Jane Girls a bit of a hard sell for me. Despite being multi-racial and (often celebratory and raunchy) advocates for sexual agency and pleasure, both groups were also formed and almost completely controlled by men (Prince and Rick James, respectively). As Greig points this out, I would have appreciated a broader context that I feel dicussing girl bands could have provided.
That said, I do think the inclusion of Bananarama is interesting, as they had a punkish, thrift-store edge and often linked themselves to the girl group era by covering song like The Velvelettes’ “He Was Really Saying Something.” I suppose this gets us into the dangerous territory of “wearing” and “trying on” race, but I’ll let you decide.
I also appreciate that Greig included hip hop in the discussion of girl groups, vis-à-vis Salt-N-Pepa, though fear that past lesser-known acts like Northern State, hip hop has historically favored solo artists to groups and has provided scarce resources for women, whether on their own or rhyming with friends.
I’d also be curious as to what Greig would say about groups from my youth like TLC, En Vogue, SWV, The Spice Girls and, during my high school years, Destiny’s Child, 3LW, and Dream. And of course, if we’re expanding girl groups to include punkier acts, I wonder what Greig thinks of Vivian Girls and Mika Miko alongside neo-retro acts like The Pipettes, as well as acts like The Pussycat Dolls who are, for better or for worse, one of the few integrated, multi-racial girl groups to achieve mainstream success since The Ronettes.
Again, all worthwhile endeavors; each in need of their own book for further inquiry.