Earlier this summer, I had Grimes’ Visions and THEESatisfaction’s awE naturalE on a loop. Though critics were generally favorable to both records, some even claiming them to be among the year’s best, I was struck by Jody Rosen’s conclusion that there was “an emptiness at the center” of Visions.
That emptiness is actually what I found most compelling about Visions. It’s something Lindsay Zoladz addresses more favorably in her review, unpacking the term “post-Internet” and attributing the artist’s self-professed short attention span as evidence of a pop architect’s young, fertile mind. I hear it in awE naturalE too. True, it’s hard to find the chorus—or at times a coherent train of thought—on either record. The former uses songs to gather crowded thoughts by a very loose thread. The latter doesn’t press on its own ideas, content to keep songs short and hovering somewhere between a fragment and an afterthought.
Both are invested in repurposing detritus. One is obsessed with clashing synth pop with early 90s R&B and new age; the other is invested in free jazz, funk, and hip hop. Both are, in some sense dealing with identity by using abstraction to think past it. Claire Boucher harnesses the studio and recording software to “be a body” of her own making through bursts of melody and sound that defy coherence for a deeply felt immediacy. For Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White, words often curve past the margins of awE naturalE in a dense, textured prose delivered with an ease that belies its complexity. Both albums are unmistakably “female”, even if both acts are trying to blow up such categories.
Put simply, what I like about both records is that they lack a center entirely. Visions and awE naturalE are open texts. But how do we listen to open texts? Usually listeners require some kind of center—the hook, the bridge that links chorus to verse. This is not to suggest that a listener is unsophisticated for requiring a center or that a songwriter is pandering when s/he provides one. I don’t think Rosen is saying “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” in his appraisal of Visions. Nor am I suggesting that it’s so easy to provide a center. I recently sat in on a songwriting workshop for my local chapter of Girls Rock Camp. The instructor played The Beatles’ “Come Together,” Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll,” and Taylor Swift’s “Mean” and asked the girls to identify compositional units like the intro, pre-verse, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, hook, bridge, and the outro. Among other things, this exercise proved that Swift is a more sophisticated songwriter than I realized.
Though I have argued the limitations of formalism in the past, there’s value in abiding by grammar and structure. Those restrictions aren’t inherently oppressive or indicative of creative stagnation. Nor does their limitations suggest that you can’t absorb the rules only to break them effectively. Listen to Azealia Banks. Joanna Newsom and Agnès Varda care very deeply about form. They couldn’t be able to undertake, much less complete, challenging work like Ys or Lions Love if they didn’t.
My medium is language. I work with words all the time but I think I’m only now starting to appreciate the rigor necessary to harness their power. When I started this blog, I was a bored archival aide trying to channel my restlessness into something productive. I didn’t care how my words fit together if the ideas were there. Actually, I fetishized the tangent. But after spending a year in course work and teaching college students the impact of effective communication and a summer spent editing Antenna and revising a book chapter, I really care about my words.
I don’t care about my words so much in terms of how they are received, discredited, or remixed as I do in how I present them in their final form. A friend noted that as he developed as a scholar, he placed less value in abstraction and began studying Richard Dyer’s compositional style in order to be a clearer writer. I get that. I want my work to be clear. I want to be able to spot the thesis rather than bury it with verbiage and equivocation. I want my sentences to be shorter. I want my argument to cohere. I want to be understood, even if I’m not.
Though I claim to listen for what I don’t recognize in music, it’s somewhat disingenuous to claim dance music as demonstrative of this. All music can be broken down into compositional units. New Order and the Pet Shop Boys care a great deal about form. Dance music requires an adherence it, as much of its effectiveness is tied to listener response. Music is a time-based medium, no more evident than when the Chemical Brothers deploy the eight count (pick a song) to pay it off with an epic climax or cathartic reintroduction of the theme (5, 6, 7, 8….).
One way that dance music engineers listener response is through repetition. This helps listeners locate the beat. It’s not uncommon for musicians or deejays to build or elaborate upon a theme or passage in order to keep listeners engaged. This is harder than it sounds, which makes deejaying—developing a playlist in real time to keep people’s bodies moving—a Herculean task you only notice when executed poorly or compromised by faulty technology. This is why I haven’t bothered to deejay for dance parties yet. Recognizing that Planningtorock’s “Patriarchy (Over and Out),” Little Ann’s “Deep Shadows,” and Purity Ring’s “Lofticries,” and Jimmy Ross’ “Fall Into a Trance” are great songs is one thing. Getting people to dance to them is another matter.
I still fetishize the tangent. And fragments that articulate or challenge the truth can land like bullets regardless of whether they’re missing a subject or a verb. Echoing Zoladz’s piece on failure and Nicki Minaj, I believe incoherence and misrecognition have value. They represent struggle. They recognize the value in not finding the center. As much as I see the value in declarative theses, I will always treasure records like Visions and awE naturalE which seek to bury or blow up the idea that one can ever come to such conclusions. Because in rejecting a center, they provide at least one listener with unlimited possibilities.
The week was pretty stressful for this moi. I have a bunch of half-formed thoughts about why the Girl Talk record is consistently fine but not, you know, revelatory and why I don’t care that the Beatles are once again being resold to a questionably hungry market via i-Tunes. I’ve been revisiting disc two of Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me following her great show at the Paramount, pairing it with Cat Power’s Moon Pix and imagining a conversation where they don’t talk about Bill Callahan. I recently watched Pedro Almodóvar’s Pepi, Luci, Bom, which doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test but merits a future entry here. A lot of my mindgrapes that needs, if you’ll pardon the pun, fermenting.
As we head into Thanksgiving week and I go to a friend’s birthday party tonight, I thought it would be fun to post a couple of music videos from some acts I like who make music to dance to when you have insomnia or are running from zombies at a disco. You know, stuff that would be on a playlist with Glasser’s “Mirrorage.” Enjoy!
“We Want Our Things”
Am I Real?
Directed by Ola Vasiljeva
“All Around and Away We Go”
Color Your Life
Directed by Mike Luciano
Directed by Jacqueline Castel
For those who saw Mad Men‘s “Hands and Knees” earlier this week, you know a lot of plot was rolled out. For those who follow Mad Men (and its forbearer, The Sopranos), with three episodes remaining in the current season it’s around the time the show moves from glacially paced meditations on characters and their stations in life to seismic shifts in culture and the characters’ twining personal and professional lives, which usually get met with little reaction at all. I concur with Slate‘s Michael Agger on the clumsy way in which plot moved forward in “Hands and Knees,” which he thought was best illustrated by the not-too-subtle crack on the head a character received from his father’s cane, leaving him in a state the episode title refers to.
But if the show is also about characters evading difficult decisions by refusing to act, which Salon‘s Heather Havrilesky observed in her episode recap and is a central theme the show shares with The Sopranos, it is also about shifting viewers’ expectations by deliberately occluding them from witnessing events that other shows would foreground. We don’t see Joan, Roger, or Betty’s weddings. We don’t see Paul register Southern black voters. We get the most limited interactions with the people of color who exist, if at all, on the borders of the main characters purview, most of whom could probably tell us a great deal about the people who ignore them. We may never see Sal again, even if the termination of a major account at SCDP may allow for his return. The most we tend to get is the aftermath, with the characters either denying the heft of their realities or not noticing them at all. To take it back to Havrilesky’s point, if very little actually happens on Mad Men, it is because the characters refuse to let it. Thus the events that would traditionally be of interest to viewers get sidelined, slipping away from the characters’ minds.
This can be a really frustrating way to assemble a televisual narrative, and I certainly understand if it’s off-putting to some. Kristen at Dear Black Woman, wrote a provocative essay for Antenna about the show’s strategic marginalization of black people wherein much of her pleasure in reception seems to derive from an as-yet-unfulfilled hope that people of color will gradually ingratiate. Speaking for myself, the limits of withholding people, information, and events from viewers took a toll on me as a fan this season. This is primarily because the central narrative arc is about Don Draper floundering as an ad man, divorcé, friend, and father, illustrated by self-destructive actions that I think will curry sympathy and ultimately favor, which I don’t think he deserves.
Draper’s attempt to get back in daughter Sally’s good graces with tickets to the Beatles’ historical Shea Stadium concert following a harrowing unplanned take your daughter to work day in “The Beautiful Girls” is another case in point. Though the threat that Draper won’t score the tickets after promising Sally looms over much of the episode, it’s peripheral to concerns that the Defense Department might cotton to Draper stealing the life of a commanding officer during his service in Korea to hoist himself out of his bleak personal and professional prospects. Of course, Draper does follow through and maintain his reputation as a fun weekend dad. He’s also aligned with the Beatles at the end of the episode by staring at his comely secretary to the strains of an instrumental version of “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” somewhat stealing his daughter’s emotional thunder.
The subplot is worth it alone to see Sally’s unbridaled excitement over the news, but I would’ve liked to see her at the concert. As yet, I only have actress Kiernan Shipka’s thoughts on the Beatles. Naturally, as it’s a big cultural event that could reveal much about the impacted character, it’s obscured. But thinking about Sally’s excitement alongside the peer female Beatles fans Barbara Ehrenreich identifies with in Re-Making Love: The Feminization of Sex or even Robert Zemeckis’ terrible I Wanna Hold Your Hand, I’m curious how the Beatles and the nascent significance of Boomer youth culture and shifting gender, sexual, and race politics will serve as a catalyst for Sally. This is also why, in addition to getting a guitar for her birthday, I’m still waiting for a meaningful exchange between Sally and Peggy Olson, who is working through similar negotiations–sometimes misguided–of the restrictions placed on her gender and age. I hope I get it, and I hope I see the aftereffects of the show on Sally that are more psychically resonant than a case of laryngitis.
So, the cool kids already knew back in 1995 that the answer to the “Oasis or Blur” question was “Pulp.” In 1995, I certainly knew I was supposed to like Sheffield’s underdogs who rose from years of obscurity to deliver “Common People,” which is all the more relevant today as trust-fund kids remove the band’s class consciousness to ape their deadpan sensibility and ironic sartorial statements, which seem to be modeled after what European teenagers were wearing in the 80s according to my high school French textbooks. I did like them, and continued to after their 2002 split.
But if forced to chose one or the other, I’d take Blur without question. Their lyrics were clever, their melodies were interesting, and their influences more varied. Plus, the members looked like a nerdy straight girl’s version of a boy band. I liked frontman Damon Albarn, who had a snaggle tooth and a vaguely simian cuteness that comic artist Jamie Hewlett had to be tapping into when he was designing Gorillaz with Albarn. There’s palpable class tension in my preferences, to be sure. Blur were the London-born mockney art school boys Jarvis Cocker was vituperating in “Common People.”
Oasis, on the other hand, were doggedly working class Mancs. They also had no musical vision past Lennon and McCartney. Their lyrics, absenting principle lyricist Noel Gallagher’s dyslexia, were of the worst variety of rubbish: the purposeful kind. The Gallagher brothers also forged a rivalry with Blur for publicity and that their episode of Behind the Music confirms they’re despicable people. I like “Cigarettes and Alcohol” well enough. I enjoy singing “Morning Glory” at karaoke, but my enjoyment of the song completely resides in shouting the lyrics, a singular joy I also bestow upon Girls’ “Hellhole Ratrace” and Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Song Against Sex.” I have no use for these songs as listening experiences — I merely enjoy shouting along with them, largely to drown out the recorded sound. It’s an icky, selfish joy.
But if you’re angling for true Britpop allegiances, I’m closer to siding with Courtney Love on this one. Apparently some time in the mid-90s (possibly during Lollapalooza ’95?), she said that the future of rock music was “Elastica-r-r.” While history and personal drama unfortunately proved that mantle untenable, Elastica were my Britpop band.
I remember buying the band’s self-titled debut at some big box chain in 1995 because I saw them in Seventeen and heard “Connection” and wanted to be a member. I particularly responded to frontwoman Justine Frischmann’s androgynous look and too-cool persona, later finding out that she co-founded proto-Britpop band Suede and was dating Albarn. I already had the short dark hair and wore loose black clothes. I used dry sarcasm as a defense mechanism for being shy and chubby. In my mind, I was as good as in.
The clerk responded to my purchase with incredulity. Perhaps he found them disposable. I’m not sure if the guy was one of those boorish types who think girls shouldn’t play guitars. Their status at the time as a buzz band could have predicted their short shelf life, as assuredly it did for all-male bands like the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, and countless others. At around this time, shoegazer bands like Ride were aping the Black Crowes. A year later, peer act Lush would release their final album, Lovelife, which attempted to recast the group in a more contemporary image.
Shaking off the record store attendant’s rebuke, I took the record home and discovered a series of short, spiky songs brimming with frank recollections of a nightlife with friends that teems with the possibilities of bad sex and great sex recounted from a distinctly female voice. It was an exciting sound I was just starting to relate to. Revisiting the album this past week, I’m stunned by how fresh it still sounds. But when I was closer to Rory Gilmore’s age, I was just beginning to understand the frisson of sharing closed quarters with a boy you probably shouldn’t be with.
I wonder if the record store clerk and other folks of his station didn’t like Elastica because they knew the band ripped off bands like the Stranglers and Wire, the latter a lauded post-punk band then still pretty obscure in the states. I’d come to discover that the band lifted a riff from the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes” for “Waking Up” and Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba” for “Connection,” among others.
Frankly, I don’t care. Britpop could be defined as a post-modern response to Great Britian’s pop legacy. A band like Blur pilfered from a variety of influences, eventually branching out to American indie rock. Albarn was particularly influenced by Pavement, whose frontman Stephen Malkmus apparently hooked up with Frischmann at some point. A former acquaintance once referred to Malkmus as indie rock’s Peter Fonda. I only abide by this statement as a counter to Love’s pronouncement that Malkmus was indie rock’s Grace Kelly, which sounds great but makes little sense. However, I do think it’s interesting that Frischmann mentions the actor in “Car Song.” I interpret Malkmus responding to the Anglo interest with “We Dance,” a song that sounds like Suede’s Brett Anderson could have sung it.
Oasis swung for the masses with the Beatles, a safe move because everyone steal from them. Elastica appropriated punk’s terse songcraft and tinny production and was penalized for essentially having the same taste as discerning record store clerks. But if you take out the riff to “Connection,” you still have a good song with smart, funny lyrics. If you take all the reference in “Don’t Look Back In Anger” or “Wonderwall,” you don’t have much else left. This isn’t to say that the members of Wire shouldn’t have been compensated. Just as I think the Rolling Stones deserved to collect every penny from the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” which sampled a classical arrangement of “The Last Time,” so do I think Wire and the Stranglers deserved credit. I just think, in the name of credibility, swiping from Wire is hardly a big deal. Bands with dudes in them do it all the time.
I also think my indifference toward Elastica’s musical plagiarism stems from the ubiquitous presence sampling has in my listening practices. I grew up on hip hop and probably justify the band’s decisions through that lens. Thus I’m also interested in Frischmann’s connection to former roommate Maya Arulpragasm, who would later become M.I.A. Then a filmmaker, Arulpragasm created the cover art for The Menace and directed the music video for “Mad Dog God Dam.”
(BTW, Robert Christgau agrees with me about The Menace being underrated. This is one of the few times we’ve agreed on anything. Even when we have, as with Sleater-Kinney’s output, he fixates on sex and Corin Tucker’s voice as the manifestation of the female orgasm.)
Arulpragasm would later vacation with Frischmann and write “Galang,” the song which catapulted her to pop stardom. If that’s the legacy Frischmann’s known for as she continues to retreat from public life, that’s a nice consolation prize. But I do hope people remember her band’s own limited output, regardless of its source material.
Wait, some of you might be thinking. Who is Robin Tunney?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dammit, Glee. Quit hogging the posts!
I don’t intend to catalogue all of the events of “Vitamin D” (which ended with a double doozy — I know I’m gonna love Sue, the blythely devious cheerleading coach played with aplomb by Jane Lynch, mixing it up with the glee club; I don’t feel similarly about Emma’s impending nuptuals). I will say, though, that I liked Kurt’s alliance with the girls and Rachel’s alliance with pregnant cheerleader Quinn (who is dating Finn, Rachel’s crush). I also happen to think kids who abuse pep pills are funny. Ask Lisa Simpson. Or Jessie Spano.
What I will highlight briefly is that I thought the show’s use of mash-ups were interesting and fun. I highly doubt that kids these days are stringing together Usher with Bon Jovi for strongly-regulated school competitions (my killjoy hunch is that Ohio, much like Texas, has a regulatory body that rules what songs are acceptable or legal to perform). However, that this increasingly ubiquitous format has become so mainstream that no one really seems to care if Danger Mouse pairs Jay-Z with The Beatles or Girl Talk combines Notorious B.I.G. with Elton John speaks to how drastically the way we hear music has changed over this decade.
Or does it? Because the other interesting thing tonight’s made-for-TV mash-ups made clear to me is how similar this is to a time-honored musical tradition: the medley. That the songs just happen to be from different artists opens up the suggestion that popular music is in constant dialogue with itself, contending generic conventions and its attendant identity baggage along the way.
As tonight’s episode was a battle of the sexes, I will keep in character and side with the girls. While I usually do this anyway, I think their mash-up was way better than the boys strained Danny-Zucco-by-way-of-The Strokes routine to Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” and Usher’s “Confessions,” which just played too faux macho and triumphant. Also, I think I heard a bit of AutoTune doctoring with Finn’s solo, which is an automatic dq. You better bring it next week, fellas. 😉
I think the girls totally brought it. Mercedes’s selection is Beyoncé’s “Halo,” perhaps an essentializing choice for the show’s lone African American character, but a lovely ballad nonetheless. It is paired with female-led band Katrina and The Waves’s “Walking on Sunshine,” a zippy new wave ode to urgent, addictive sexual ecstacy. I even like the mismatched yellow dresses fine. Initially, they brought bridesmaids to mind instead of girl groups. But I reconsidered after thinking about how the wardrobes may reflect each girl’s personality. Also, I wonder if the sunny color, which alludes to both songs, is a conscious choice to provide contrast to the myriad of dreary social and economic issues that Rachel hilariously rattles off to the judges prior to the girls’ performance. I wouldn’t put it past these girls, and don’t it feel good?