Roughly an hour after my review of a new musical was posted came word that Chavela Vargas had passed. There was something eerie in the timing; my review had got me thinking more than ever about Astrid Kirchherr and women like her – the strong, uncompromising female artists who refused to fit into tidy pre-determined roles around their femininity and whose art was never determined solely by their gender or the place that put that at in the world.
Vargas, the throaty Latin singer had long been a favorite of mine. The first time I saw her, in Frida, I was entranced. What a voice… what a soul… what a presence.
It feels as if this year has been a horrible one for losing strong female artists and presences. Zelda Kaplan, who passed in February, was another sparky figure I greatly admired; my clubbing days would’ve extended longer, I think, had I had gone with her. There was an Auntie Mame-esque joie de vivre about her. Alternately, Nora Ephron and Maeve Binchy felt like confidantes -the sort who’d be hilariously blunt with how ugly those jeans look on you, and why you (I) should stay from men who don’t do a lot of reading or like art galleries. Donna Summer was the woman who stopped everyone talking (and got them dancing); self-contained in her sensuousness, confident in her calm sexuality, she never had to try hard, she simply was. Real sex appeal, as I recently told a friend, can’t be faked. It only fools some of the people some of the time.
Donna Summer’s moans, simpers, sighs and statements were a declaration of her independence, alright -the exact same way Chavela Vargas’ anguished, fierce, defiant tones were. They still are, for me and female artists everywhere. Their tunes didn’t definer them as a woman; they defined them as fleshy, living human beings: let me be what I am, here and now.
There’s so much more I could say, should say, about these women, but it’s not the time or place, and I still haven’t finished meditating on their role in my life, or mourning their loss. Lou Reed’s 1992 albumMagic And Loss captures much of this feeling, of losing personal friends who were also artistic heroes. Creative and personal so often bleeds over in life, and in art. That’s probably a good thing.
All I can say at this point is: Dear Ms. Kirchherr, please hang on. I haven’t met you yet, and I want to.
Today is the Super Bowl. Along with the inherent drama of watching grown men crash into each other as they engage in a kind of life-size version of a chess match and the fact that the New York Giants are involved (go Giants!), I’ll be watching because this year’s Halftime Show looks amazing. None other than Madonna herself is set to perform, along with LMFAO, Nicki Minaj and M.I.A.. Oh, and Cirque du Soleil are involved. If that isn’t entertainment with a capital “e,” I don’t know what is.
When the whispers of her appearance began circulating a few months ago, there were the predictable snickers and groans. What’s the Queen of Pop doing hopping around, glamorous and a-glitter, amidst the quarterbacks? But the Super Bowl isn’t strictly about sports, and you can’t get a more entertaining live performer than Madonna. I was schooled in this many years ago when I, full of cynicism and disliking both her image and canon, was dragged to her Girlie Show tour. Not being Catholic, I couldn’t understand her obsession over the religion (probably why Blond Ambition didn’t appeal to me, or much of her early work) but being in the very new, very scary-meets-cool world of university (ie artsy lectures, cute professors, pub nights, and my own car) meant I was interested in notions of female independence, and what that meant to the wider cultural world. Where did I fit in? Madonna’s hilariously arch, if brutally honest album Erotica, and her photography book Sex, did a lot in terms of helping me figure out that place. Sexual being? Thinking being? Feeling being? All of the above. Next.
Through the years, I’ve developed an enormous amount of respect for Madonna. I love that she’s never been cowed by those snickers and groans, even as she fearlessly integrates so many different aspects of her interests and personality with such single-minded ferocity. Even when she showed us her (fantastically fit) naked body in Sex, paraded down a Gaultier runway topless, referenced Hindu imagery in dance numbers (or Judaism in music videos), Madonna never seems to give a fig about the outrage over her choices. It makes me wonder at her resilience, and about how she’s handling the mean-spirited criticism that’s cropped up the last few years around her face -more specifically, the work on her face. The entertainment industry hates, despises, loathes and abhors ageing. All the praise for Betty White conveniently cloaks the ugly if basic fact that she’d never be cast in a sexual role, that if you’re in the business and plan to age au naturel, you must be sweet, docile, and most of all, dumb (or be really, really good at playing dumb, and have a publicist who can work that angle relentlessly). You must be non-threatening and totally lovable. It goes without saying Madonna is none of these things, and has no interest in pursuing or cultivating those qualities.
The comments on Madonna’s face -and her ageing (she is fifty-three) -range from the catty to the downright nasty. Many have a nasty sexual vulgarity to them, and others are sniping and mean, implying there’s something awfully, terribly wrong with a successful woman over fifty climbing into bed with a twenty-something man. I find this kind of immaturity discouraging, but it’s also inevitable, the result of a relentlessly youth-oriented culture where only those under twenty-five are deemed sexually desirable. Annie Lennox pondered this dilemma, but Madonna is less interested in examination than in entertainment, and really, you can’t blame her. Like it or lump it, that entertainment demands an eternal esthetic of youthfulness. Her video for “Hollywood” from the 2003 album American Life underlined this awareness, offering a scary, freakish depiction of the demands of fame, and of a society where youth (especially female youth) is deemed more important than brains, ability, even talent.
She continues to play with our notions around entertainment, fantasy, and ageing in her latest video, “Gimme All Your Luvin’,” a cheeky little dance number with a pulsing electronic beat and the lady’s deceptively wispy vocals. (Don’t kid yourself: there’s steel behind that sound.) As Madonna, in full Bardot-esque makeup, shakes her big blonde mane (hilariously outlandish extensions or glamorous tresses? who cares?) or walks sideways along a wall with a team of faceless muscular football players supporting her, or walks coolly be-shaded with a pram, or has a (clearly thrilled) Nicki Minaj and (too-cool-for-school) M.I.A. bounce around as her cheerleaders, she isn’t trying to compete with the Gagas, the Britneys, the Katys, or any other would-be pop princesses. She doesn’t need to. She’s competing with the long-held ideas -ours -of how a famous person (famous woman, make that) should look, should move, should sound. The demand to “Act/Look your age!” are just plain boring, in the same vein as the accusations of her affecting an “accent” at the Golden Globes. “You’re from Detroit,” sniffed an online poster. Those attitudes don’t faze her. Like any good pop diva, Madonna seems dead embarrassed by her roots, and fully conscious of her vanity. Why should she act like “one of us” (or put on an act of faux-humility, as so, so many in Hollywood are so good at doing) when she clearly doesn’t move in our world anyway? Those offended by her lack of humility find her pretentious; those inspired by her steely-eyed confidence find her fascinating. There is no middle ground.
Still, Madonna wants to remind us: there’s an album, there’s a movie, expect a tour. This is how it’s done. She’s reminding potential viewers at tonight’s Super Bowl (the football fans, her fans, fans of pop culture itself) that she’s still a force. Does she need to? Yes. Amidst American Idol and America’s Got Talent and The Voice and Glee, Madonna is saying in her iron-hand-in-velvet-glove way: I was here first and I still do it better than all of you. Past this hardness lies the plain truth: she loves doing it – loves the performing, the entertaining, the singing-dancing-sashaying-hopping-bopping singy-songy madness that is pop. Don’t you?
Refusing to be defined (or limited) by her age, by her family, by her motherhood, by her charity efforts or even by her poptastic past, Madonna is defiantly, definitively present in the harsh here and nowness of 2012 Pop Music. While we applaud sixty-two year-old Bruce Springsteen’s latest opus with nary a word about his appearance, we snark over the face of a fifty-three year-old woman, ignoring the euphoric rush of joy her beats bring us, the heady fantasy that the artifice of the pop world presents. It isn’t fair in the real world. But the pop world isn’t the real world; like its namesake in the art world, it’s all about glamour, fantasy, superficiality, and a perpetual youth. We experience those things vicariously whenever we listen, causing a little dance across the kitchen or a tap of the fingers on the steering wheel or a wiggle in our office chairs. We become that young smooth being again, carefree, fierce, uninhibited, curious, and open to everything, investigating the limits (and dizzying non-limits) of our own potential and the joyous exhilaration of true independence, ever-mindful of what being a woman means, for good and bad and everything in-between. Maybe, just maybe, amidst the bleeps and bloops of that ditty, we could take a little holiday. It would be so nice.
Photo credits: Top – AP Photo, Matt Slocum; Middle – Herb Ritts; Vanity Fair collection from Madonnalicious; Bottom, still from “Gimme All Your Luvin'” music video (Interscope/Live Nation) with artwork from Sound Off Music blog.
I’ve expressed my love and admiration for her work in past posts. But lately I feel a particular kinship with this most incredible of painters. She was many things through her short 47 years: wife, artist, daughter, sister, rebel, political figure. She was a supremely feminine figure as she reveled in masculine archetypes, and played with gender roles, power roles, expectations of what and how a woman “should” look and express herself, and always, always, she seemed driven by love: of craft, of country, of ideals and desires and of joining the utterly ethereal with the deeply earthy.
She was a victim of ill circumstance, health problems and outright tragedy… but she was never, ever a victim. Her paintings are so alive with her life, her experiences, her… Frida-ness, they draw you into their present moment, drowning you in a gorgeous rush of blues and greens and reds and always, always black.
I thought about Kahlo and her fierce spirit recently. A few weeks ago I had my cell phone stolen. It was taken stealthily, right out of my bag. As is to be expected, I felt stupid, angry, and violated. It was the start of me looking at New York in a different way. I’ve been coming here for years, reveling in its culture and creative spirit; I’ve never once been the victim of a crime. Why now? Why did it coincide with my three-month anniversary here? What was the universe trying to tell me? As I kept telling people online and in-person, that phone (which I got my first week living here) contained over 3,000 photographs, a visual diary for all of my experiences. Maybe it was time for the gritty sheen of the city to fade; maybe it was time to wipe the ego-driven slate clean. Maybe it was time to return to Toronto.
As I looked out over the green carpet of Central Park this past July 4th (my first in the Big Apple), two thoughts came to mind: I want to drink champagne up here, and, I want to paint up here (also: why can’t I do both?). The roars to resume painting again are growing louder, and I’m not sure what to do. All my equipment’s back in Canada. Artists have relationships with the tools of their craft, and you can’t simply go and use someone else’s and have everything be just fine. It may be a kind offer, but it’s like giving me a size 0 dress and expecting me to be comfortable. Since my phone’s been stolen, the howls to get back to using my own tools have been more shrill than ever. I come to understand my experiences through both words, and, I’ve discovered, images. The act of expressing them, moment to moment – whether photographically or with paint -is what matters, not the finished product.
So the shapes, faces, moments, allthe “you would“s and the street art – all the stuff I lost and can’t leave behind – isn’t what brings comfort at the end of the day. “They’re just passing fancies… and in time may go…” This sense of living squarely in the moment (is it something akin to love?) has most keenly been experienced via culture for me -in a theater, through hearing music, seeing film, staring at art -those things that have an alive “present”-ness within them. One gives so much to art, and one gets back so much in return. Not so people; sometimes people simply take, whether figuratively, or, in the case of my long-gone phone, literally. Why cry over the past? Why cling? Seems like a recipe for terrible art, if not a terrible life.
And so, I thought of Frida: a victim of a awful circumstance, but not a victim. Horrible things happen, period. Lately it feels as if they’ve been happening to me more often than not, but there’s always tiny stars of goodness to balance it out: invites to the ballet or the theater, or the gallery or museum are always met with a sense of jubilation and glee. They feel like home – a new home, an old home. This home, NYC.
New York, you’re a drag, a dig, a drab bitch of skulduggery and wait-for-no-one, can-do, keep-up perversity. You’re ragged, you’re filth, you’re falling apart and put back together in gilded thread for the billionaires in the black SUVs. You’re thunder, lightning, sunshine, wind and rain. I think I’ll weather you just a bit longer.
Now, if only I had my paint brushes and easel, and access to that beautiful view all the time.
It was predicted, and it came true: I’m in definite withdrawl from the amazing experience of seeing Grinderman last week. A mad mix of shrieking guitars, creaky violin, ear-splitting feedback, thudding bass, crashing drums & scratchy cymbals (oh, and one very booming baritone) has invaded my aural -and spiritual -space. It’s been perfect in terms of creative inspiration, but has totally stymied the more mundane aspects of Good And Proper Adult Responsibility. Oh dear.
Along with getting retweeted by the band’s amazing Twitter team and looking up every single live clip I can find online, I’ve been thinking a lot about women in rock and roll. It’s no accident that this fascination coincides with my diving head-first into the work of Patti Smith. Years ago I remember music-mad broadcaster George Stroumboulopoulos wisely observating that if Patti had been born male, she’d be as well-known as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen (and, I might add, just as comfortably rich too). I think about all the crap (some deserved) Courtney Love has endured, despite the fact she’s put out some incredibly good stuff. I remember the great shows L7 used to give back in the early 90s, and how people I knew sneered and thought they were vulgar. I remember bopping along to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts as a kid and being accused of being “butch.” I enjoy all these artists as much as I enjoy Soundgarden, Led Zeppelin, and yep, Grinderman. Seeing them last week, I really have been wondering: where are the women doing this? why aren’t they being promoted? Why aren’t little girls who rock out being encouraged to… well, rock out? Somehow it feels like it goes against the image of what everyone thinks girls should do. Wear pink, like Barbies, wear makeup, and eventually, don heels. Why can’t we do all that AND rock out? (Or not do any of it but still like boys, drinks, and the rock music?) What’s the role of aggression and creativity -especially when you happen to have boobs?
It’s always been my opinion (based on direct experience) that the world doesn’t take very well to aggressive women: “butch”, “dyke”, “trashy”, “nuts”, even the eponymous “bitch” all get thrown at those women. Toronto’s urbanvessel theatre company wanted to take a closer look at this idea of women and aggression. Their show, Voice Box, was produced this past weekend in association with the city’s Harbourfront Centre (a big arts complex on the edge of Lake Ontario), and it integrates boxing with theatre and music. From the very first notice I got of this show, I was curious about the hows and whys. I interviewed Voice Box’s whip-smart writer, Anna Chatterton, at CIUT just before the show’s opening to get her insights into popular perceptions around female aggression, and how they relate to the art of getting in the ring.
Alas, I’m no closer to solving the riddle of why women aren’t making the kind of balls-out, kick-ass music that puts my stomach in knots and makes my blood do aerobics in my veins. But then, I suppose, there’s another argument that, if I enjoy it (like so many women do), that’s enough. But is it? Hmmm. Pop music has its fair share of male-female ratios in terms of performers (their presentation and marketing is a whole separate argument); why not rock and roll?
Dear Grinderman, please think about having Patti sing a number with you. I can hardly wait for her version of “No Pussy Blues”.
Photo credits: Top photo by Adam Coish. Bottom photo by Giulio Muratori.
I Eat Your Country (With Relish): In honor of the Sydney International Food Festival last fall, participating countries contributed flags made from the respective countries’ best-known foods. It’s simple but it’s nifty. Depending on which flag you like, I guarantee you’ll get hungry just looking. I especially like the French one myself. No prizes for guessing what constitutes its tricolour. Nationalism has never been so delicious.
I Love This Band: Preachers Son is a Dublin-based trio with a grit-glam sound channeling equal parts David Bowie (especially in his Berlin phase), Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, and the Legendary Shack-Shakers. They’ve created a unique, hard-rock sound that positively drips with drama and raw musicality. I can’t stop playing them. Fingers crossed they’ll be here for North by Northeast.
Viva La Eno: In this interview from March 2009, the artist/producer/all-around genius expounds on his processes of composition, production, and collaboration. He offers some fantastic insights into his past with Roxy Music as well as his present, working with bands like U2 and Coldplay. He also discusses the beauty of simplicity, citing an early viewing of a Mondrian painting as a formative moment in his creative development. Oh, and he has this to say about fans of bands:
I don’t like fans very much to be honest. Of course I like people enjoying my music and I quite like being admired for having some good ideas, but the anorak-y type of fan is a rather frightening object of humanity, because you think, “Please get a life; don’t have mine.”
Collaborawesome: David Byrne and Fatboy Slim have come together to produce an album chalk-full of deep grooves and original sounds. Here Lies Love features the vocal talents of Tori Amos, Martha Wainwright, Alice Russell Sia, Natalie Merchant, Cyndi Lauper, and many more. Beautiful.
Fountain of Woot: Marcel Duchampe’s 1917 exhibition called “Fountain” made a splash upon its exhibition, but a surfeit of duplicates threaten to tinkle all over the famed artist’s legacy… or possibly enhance it. As More Intelligent Life notes, Duchamp was one “who had painted moustaches on postcards of the Mona Lisa” and he “understood the power of reproductions to render a work iconic and consolidate an artist’s international reputation.” In this high-tech remix era where questions of originality are both critical and codswallop, and borrowing/stealing for recreation is plus normale, the issues Duchamp raised nearly a century ago have particular currency and potency.
Welcome to Detroit: Photographer Andrew Hinderaker went to Detroit -and took a lot of pictures. His work is a document of an area hit hard by the recession; empty, yawning streets, skeletal buildings, hard lights dominate many shots, but interesting, he also finds the beauty in the desolation, turning his subject (a microcosm of America itself) into a kind of victory over dark days and damning forces.
Tune in Friday: I’m going back to radio broadcasting starting April 9th, 9:30amET. Whether you’re an A&E afficionado, or just plain want to hear what my voice sounds like, tune in. Please?