Tagged: The Rolling Stones

For Kristen, a few weeks ago

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.”

Bon Iver getting in touch with nature and, therefore, himself; image courtesy of stereogum.com

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?

Miranda July, you are not the mother!; image courtesy of jonathanrosenbaum.com

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.

Why it doesn’t bother me that Elastica stole from Wire

Elastica in its Buzz Bin iteration (from left: drummer Justin Welch, lead guitarist Donna Matthews, vocalist/guitarist Justine Frischmann, bassist Annie Holland); image courtesy of indiereview.wordpress.com

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.

Jarvis Cocker: the reason twenty-something males in East Austin look like well-read Eurotrash; image courtesy of unrealitytv.co.uk

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.”

My kind of boy band: Blur, channeling Blondie (from left: bassist Alex James, guitarist Graham Coxon, vocalist/keyboardist Damon Albarn, drummer Dave Rowntree); image courtesy of flickr.com

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.

Women’s music creates “Radical Harmonies”

We're talking about a revolution -- the women of Olivia Records (from left: Judy Dlugasz, Meg Christian, Ginny Berson, Jennifer Woodul, and Kate Winter); image courtesy of maggiesmetawatershed.blogspot.com

The other day after work, I caught a screening put together by UT’s Center for Women and Gender Studies for Dee Mosbacher’s Radical Harmonies, a documentary about the emergence of women’s music starting in the late 1960s. My friend Carrie was good enough to let me know about it, and I’m glad I went.

I’ll be clear. I know very little about women’s music, apart from it developing out of the lesbian separatist movement of the second wave in the 1970s. I have a cursory awareness of continuations of the tradition, particularly evident in the work of Ani DiFranco, The Indigo Girls, and (my personal favorite) The Murmurs.

I went into the screening with some background knowledge about cult figures like Malvina Reynolds thanks to Jessica Hopper‘s Tweets about getting into her music.

And I recently attended a trans education workshop put together by OutYouth, where GRCA volunteer Paige Schilt gave an great presentation that outlined instances of transphobia from within the feminist movement, touching on the ongoing rectification of exclusionary policies that dictate the parameters female-only spaces at women’s music festivals.

Going in, I had some hesitations. While I appreciate the efforts of these women, the earnestness behind much of their efforts was a bit off-putting at first. For one, with some exception, women’s music is most closely identified as the work of college-education, middle-class liberal white ladies. I’ll map out the ways in which they were cognizant of this and resistant to it in a moment, but at first hearing I felt a little uncomfortable about the precious sentiments in some of this music, particularly in songs like Margie Adam’s “Song to Susan” and Cris Williamson’s “Joana.” To be clear, I wasn’t embarrassed by what they were singing about, but how they went about delivering their message. As I described it to Kristen at Act Your Age, the music has a very “I held hands with my lover in the park” feel to it. Ugh. Eye roll. Insert ironic comment to offset my discomfort. LOL.

I think my initial misgivings speak most closely to a different generational sensibility afforded to women my age who are allowed to have an irreverant, sardonic attitude toward romance, sex, and sexuality. While considerable gains still need to be made for the equality of LGBTQI folks, attitudes have changed that my peers may take for granted. But in the late 1960s, a woman performing a song about being a lesbian was grounds to shut down a concert. This very thing happened to Maxine Feldman when she had the “nerve” to sing “Angry Atthis,” an ode to her lover and a wish to not have to live life in society’s closet.

Cover of Closet Sale (Galaxia, 1979); image courtesy of maggiesmetawatershed.blogspot.com

In addition, these women were fighting rock music’s sexism and misogyny. Not only were they up against having to prove that they were musicians and not groupies, but they were also in opposition to rock’s use of euphemism and suggestion. One need only look toward the mainstream success of rock’s bad boys The Rolling Stones, whose catalog boasted songs like “Brown Sugar” and “Under My Thumb” to get a sense of what women’s music was fighting against. Within folk music, some male artists like Tim “I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain” Buckley were denying any responsibility past their own carnal interests. Even a woman like Joni Mitchell wasn’t safe from rock’s patriarchal strangle-hold, as she was once given the dubious honor of being named Rolling Stone‘s Old Lady of the Year early in her illustrious career.

Actually, Joni Mitchell seems pretty unwilling to be Graham Nash's old lady in this photo; image courtesy of morrisonhotelgallery.com

So I understand the mindset of these women. These songs seem to say “not only are we going to sing about the complex poetics of lesbian desire, but we’re going to make absolutely sure that you know exactly what we’re singing about and to whom. For good measure, we’re going to sound as stripped down and intimate as possible.” Take that, Glimmer Twins.

That said, some associated acts with women’s music knew how to shred. Take Fanny as an example. Boasting Philippine American sisters June and Jean Millington on guitar and bass, the group was, at their time, one of the few all-female bands recording and touring with support from a major label (in their case, Reprise). They also rocked.

As mentioned earlier, women’s music tended to be a white woman’s game. That said, there were women of color on the rosters of female-only record labels like Olivia and Redwood. Some of these acts, like Sweet Honey in the Rock, did not identify as lesbians but were on board with Redwood’s pro-woman message. Leader Bernice Johnson Reagon, who was a member of The Freedom Singers and founded Sweet Honey after being moved by Joan Little’s case, could also identify with the label’s political leanings.

Other artists, like Gwen Avery, Judith Casselberry, and Deidre McCalla were openly gay African American women and developed substantial followings. Apparently Avery developed quite a following with her song “Sugar Mama,” which was featured on Olivia’s Lesbian Concentrate compilation.

Cover for Lesbian Concentrate, rendered in direct opposition to Florida Citrus Commission spokeswoman/world-class homophobe Anita Bryant (Olivia, 1977); image courtesy of queermusicheritage.us

In addition, I really appreciate women’s music’s emphasis on historical context and continuation. In addition to their fandom of older artists like Reynolds, artists like Holly Near helped resurrect the career of artists like Ronnie Gilbert, once a member of a fairly obscure country band called The Weavers. By the 1970s, Gilbert had gotten her therapist’s license and come out. By connecting with a younger generation of listeners and working with younger artists, Gilbert helped to forge links between queer and straight women across age ranges and strengthened women’s historical significance in popular music.

As musical artists began developing their repertoire and labels like Olivia, Redwood, Goldenrod, and Ladyslipper took shape, more women forged careers in technical positions. Musician Linda Tillery was perhaps Olivia’s most noteworthy producer. In addition, women like Olivia Records’ co-founder Ginny Berson taught fans how to become concert producers so that her artists had gigs to play, which were usually run by female-only personnel. Some of these fans, notably Kristin Lems, started events like the National Women’s Music Festival in 1974 because no female artists were deemed good enough to play a local festival.

Linda Tillery behind the drums; image courtesy of stanford.edu

One thing festivals like the National Women’s Music Festival and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival emphasized was inclusion of women with disabilities. As a result, ASL interpreters like Susan Freundlich and Sherry Hicks developed reputations as instrumental virtuosos. They also allowed for many deaf women to experience music for the first time.

Sherry Hicks; image courtesy of aslfestival.com

While I find the notion of the ASL interpreter as instrumentalist to be fascinating, it cannot be overlooked that sign language is culturally developed and thus has regressive potential. In the documentary, Reagon talks about an interpretter tugging on her nostrils to sign the word “Africa” and requested she spell it out instead.

Another thing I was surprised about is where these festivals started to develop. They didn’t originate from the coasts, but instead in parts of the Midwest — particularly Michigan and Illinois. They also caught on in parts of the South. Thus, it can’t be overstated how brave these organizers were. Many of them had no professional experience putting together gigs and events. Several of them also had not yet come out to their communities and faced considerable opposition, if not outright threats to their livelihood.

The one big elephant in the room in this documentary is the transphobia that maligns feminist history. In addition to many festivals’ exclusionary women-born women policy, some feminists were far more invective against transgendered women. Janice Raymond wrote The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male in 1979, a book wherein she reportedly espoused that transgendered women were she-males, male rapists, and associated with Nazis. She also went after Olivia recording engineer (and UT faculty member) Sandy Stone, organizing a boycott of the label’s output.

Transphobia is an ugly presence in feminist history, but one that I think requires greater context besides the uncomfortable head nod and polite smile. Here’s hoping that future feminist historians confront it, learn from it, and work to correct it.

Old is new again: SHE and The Roches

There’s nothing I like more than discovering a new band. I especially love finding out about a new band that’s actually not new at all, but at one time too obscure for the annals of history. Thanks to Jessica Hopper, I learned of another yesterday: SHE, an all-female garage rock act led by sisters Nancy and Sally Ross. They were active during the 1960s and their only release Out of Reach has been reissued on Causeway. While I don’t know if I’d say they’re the female Stones, I can definitely hear similarities between their vocals and those of PJ Harvey and Jemina Pearl.

Cover of She's "Piece of You" single; image courtesy of acerecord.co.uk

This is also reminding me that I need to check out another vintage sister act — The Roches, who started up in the 1970s. Until I saw them in my Spin Alternative Record Guide, I could’ve sworn they were just characters from Tiny Tune Adventures. Talk about a one percenter joke. Makes me wanna raise a glass to writer Sherri Stoner, who was responsible for creating characters on an animated children’s program based on a folk-rock feminist vocal group.

'We are Maggie and Terre and Suzzy' -- The Roaches on Tiny Tunes; image courtesy of roches.com

Good cover versions: Just my soul responding to another man’s song

Last Saturday, Kristen and I were talking about the music history workshops we taught with some bad-ass GRCA alums for the Girls Now! conference. As you can imagine, it’s hard to pare down nearly a century’s worth of female contributions to popular music into a 75-minute PowerPoint presentation and have it be fun and interactive as well. Thus, we made sure to include many music videos and performance clips that hopefully engaged our girl attendees. One such clip was Christina Aguilera’s Grammy performance of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” apparently beloved by Patti Smith. Afterwards, Kristen mentioned that it was possible to do an entire section on cover songs and wished we had more time to highlight and discuss more interesting examples.

Too right, Kristen. In fact, I think I started this section of the blog to cull together noteworthy cover songs, as I think covers are fascinating. What does song selection and interpretation say about the artist? How do their personae, generic alignments, and identity markers give the source material new meaning? What does it mean for Solange Knowles — aka Ms. “Fuck the Industry (Signed Sincerely)” — to cover an indie rock song like Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is The Move,” which was originally inspired by Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire and includes a sample of “Bumpy’s Lament” in her version? What does it mean for Cat Power to adopt the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” as a signature song and create several arrangements of it ranging from stripped-down folk to soulful rave-up? How does Tori Amos blow apart Eminem’s misogynistic murder fantasy in “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” by orienting herself as the dead wife in the trunk? 

Tori Amos as Bonnie; image courtesy of hereinmyhead.com

(Note: For further insight into the last song mentioned, I recommend reading Lori Burns and Alyssa Woods’s “Authenticity, Appropriation, Signification: Tori Amos on Gender, Race, and Violence in Covers of Billie Holiday and Eminem.” Also, I might need to get around to unpacking the cover art for Amos’s Strange Little Girls at some point.)

Continuing why I hope to be an on-going discussion, tonight I selected two songs originally recorded by James Brown and Sam Cooke. “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” has always seemed to me to be an ode to chauvinism. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” however, is an anthem for social change that came to define the Civil Rights Movement. But think about what additional meanings these songs may have when performed by Christina Aguilera and Sharon Jones.  

Remembering John Hughes Through Girls: Watts

Watts from Some Kind of Wonderful

Watts from Some Kind of Wonderful

Yesterday, I talked about John Hughes in relation to Iona, Andi’s mentor/boss in Pretty in Pink. But Hughes built his empire not on adults. He primarily wrote for and about teenagers. Some of those teenagers were female characters. Much of that audience was (and continues to be) teenage girls. But much of the focus goes toward teen queens like Claire Standish in The Breakfast Club and Sloane Peterson in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Weird girls like Allison Reynolds in The Breakfast Club get some recognition, as do Molly Ringwald’s girls next door: Andi Walsh in Pretty in Pink and Samantha Baker in Sixteen Candles, but both helped cultivate the actress’s status as 1980s’ Teen Queen.

In short, not a love is given to Watts, the female lead of 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful. And that’s too bad, because I think she’s one of the most interesting female characters Hughes ever wrote. Named for drummer Charlie Watts, my favorite member of The Rolling Stones, Watts is herself a drummer and working-class misfit. She is also played with charm, grit, and tomboyish swagger by Mary Stuart Masterson. She’s also hopefully in love with her best friend, Keith Nelson (played by Eric Stoltz), who is himself crushing hard on popular rich-girl Amanda Jones. In short, it’s a gender-reverse Pretty in Pink, only with a happy ending for the folks who hoped Andi would get together with Ducky. 

Amanda, Keith, and Watts; image taken from lazydork.com

Amanda, Keith, and Watts; image taken from lazydork.com

It’s also fairly gender-queer, with Stoltz playing Ringwald and Masterson playing Jon Cryer, but then taking Ducky’s effeminacy and butching it up. In addition, Watts’s look, demeanor, name, and passion for drumming all align with horror scholar Carol J. Clover’s model for the final girl. As she discusses at length in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, the final girl is the lone survivor in many slasher movies and other titles associated with the subgenre. Like Laurie Strode in the Halloween series, Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Ellen Ripley in the Alien series, and Sidney Prescott in the Scream trilogy, there is a queerness to Watts that is somewhat androgynous and not conventionally feminine.

So, that might make it easy to bristle at Watts and Keith pairing up at the end of the movie (especially since Watts gets the guy while looking more conventionally feminine — fail). And I do think there’s a valid argument to make for how heterosexuality may contain and stabilize Watts and thus render her as less of a threat, one that was indeed rendered on Masterson’s turn as Idgie Threadgoode in the heteronormative film version of Fanny Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes.

Yet, I think this reading may limit female masculinity in Some Kind of Wonderful, as well as potentially play in some sort of homonormativity. Because while there needs to be room to in our culture for the butch lesbian gender warriors Judith Halberstam discusses in her seminal book, Female Masculinity, there also needs to be room for heterosexual female masculinity and masculine girlhood in all its orientations.

Also, I appreciate that Lea Thompson’s Amanda, who could easily be spoiled and mean, is kind and relateable. And despite Watts’s jealousy, we don’t see much bickering between them. In fact, Amanda, who learns that she is too reliant on male affection to inform her self-worth, does Watts a solid by cutting Keith loose to be with her. Thus, boys don’t have to turn girls into enemies.

So, while Watts doesn’t provide the perfect text, she gets us closer to who that girl might be both on screen and in the audience. We couldn’t get closer to it without Mary. Or John. He will be missed.