Sunday, December 26, 2004

Bad Girls, Uppity Women, and the Problem of the Field

Yesterday, while wrestling with my cool new iPod (Thanks, Thers!) I had lots of time to poke around online and read.(The solution I worked out--hardly ideal--was to import all my mp3s and wma files into my heretofore unused itunes program, then cut the ones I decided I didn't need to hear regularly (as they exist elsewhere), then copy all that onto the device. But there must be a better, less time-consuming way. Mustn't there?) I found myself totally sucked into a quite interesting piece by Caryn Brown over at Perfect Sound Forever, suggesting a rough equivalency between the traumas faced last year by Liz Phair and the Dixie Chicks. Brown argues compellingly that:
Liz Phair faced a subculture war, the kind that's been raging in Bohemia even before Allen Ginsberg declared that the best minds of his generation were "poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high." Liz Phair went public with the fact that she wanted to go pop, and wanted to appeal to a mass audience; she hired the Matrix, a trio of hit-making producers, to work on some of her songs. For these actions, she was exiled from Bohemia. Natalie Maines (Dixie Chicks) publicly declared her distaste for the commander-in-chief in concert, uttering that she was, "ashamed that the president of the United States of America is from Texas." For this, her band was banished from much of country radio.

Neither of these acts is pop, per se, but I'm interested in the way generic distinctions shape our responses to public proclamations by musicians.

The Dixie Chicks kafuffle is infamous: a popular female country band who'd already raised eyebrows with their zestful tune about spousal homicide (and spawned a line of "Earl's in the Trunk" bumper stickers) simply apologized to their (foreign) audience for American foreign policy. It was stage banter. I'm sure we've all heard much worse. But the point was not the words, it was the speaker, or, more importantly, the audience. Eminem can declare "Fuck Bush" openly, but country musicians do not diss their president (though reportedly, Maines' comments were well received in the room).

The faux-outrage engineered by ClearChannel in defense of patriotic America reminded me, humorously, of All You Need Is Cash, the piss-funny documentary Eric Idle made in the 70's about "The Rutles," Dirk, Nasty, Stig, and Barry, who together "created a legend that would last a lunchtime." In the episode mirroring Lennon's famous "more popular than Jesus" statement, Idle's sonorous narration informs us that, "people were buying albums just to burn them. Sales skyrocketed." Hee hee.

But I also had a serious response, the standard liberal intellectual recoil from the sight of any conflagration of media, even that in which I don't personally indulge. In that sense, I follow Andy Partridge:
I believe the printed word is more than sacred
Beyond the gauge of good or bad
The human right to let your soul fly free and naked
Above the violence of the fearful and sad
The church of matches
Anoints in ignorance with gasoline
The church of matches
Grows fat by breathing in the smoke of dreams
It's quite obscene

The problem was that the audience for country and country-pop does tend to be of the yellow-ribbon magnet variety (though in those giddy days of 2003, we lived in a largely ribbon-free society), and not so eager to hear the political opinions of a bunch of girl singers, no matter how kickass the fiddle. Had the Dixie Chicks been a pop act, or the Dixie Dudes, they would not have been, as the resultant coinage became, "dixie-chicked." (I first heard this term from Salman Rushdie, though Thers assures me it was current in the blogosphere before that. Still, I attribute it to Rushdie, because the man who wrote The Satanic Verses and Midnight's Children can pretty much get anything from me. Linguistically, that is. But I still have to read The Ground Beneath Her Feet, his rock-and-roll novel.)

The parallel Brown draws between these events and the Liz Phair implosion seems absurd, at the outset. I mean, Phair knew her audience, chose her path. But Brown lays it out differently:
This is about time and place and action and reaction. This may be about fans (what happens when the performer you idolize turns out to be something different than you expect?) and it may or may not be about boundaries (who gets to set them, who gets to move them, and are they sometimes fluid). This may be about the glories of war, about how it sometimes it takes a culture war to really find yourself, and how a real war influences culture.

I liked Liz Phair in the mid-90's; I thought Whip-smart was a great record, and "Supernova" one of the greatest love songs ever written ("Your kisses are as wicked as an M-16/And you fuck like a volcano and you're everything to me"). I do, however, remember once hearing her cover of "Turning Japanese" on the radio on my way to work, stalking into the classroom fuming, and cursing my students that their lives should become kitsch while they were still young enough to realize it. They were bemused, and rightly so. In any case, I worked backward through Exile in Guyville and I liked what she did and who she was, though I was also aware that she resisted her social position. I once heard her interviewed and she said she had no interest in being "the next feminist spokesmodel" or something like that.

I had no strong feelings about The Matrix intervention, except that it seemed silly to me to hire someone to do for you what you seemed perfectly capable of doing for yourself, like hiring a personal shopper or something. Decadent and unnecessary, kind of. And I do take the general point that she's getting a bit long in the tooth to do the whole Avril Lavigne thing--Christ, she's my age (within about 6 months). But she looks good, and the record doesn't suck. I have it, but it's not something I go back to often, like probably 90% of the stuff I own.

But then it was not the resultant record that people objected to; it was the violation of a code, a moment Brown compares to Dylan going electric, though I wouldn't grant it such epic status myself. In that sense, it never mattered what the record sounded like, merely that it existed. Similarly, the Dixie Chicks violated an idea (or ideal)--and paid the price.

The inequity here is that the Dixie Chicks' transgression seems to have paid off, while Phair's hasn't, at least not to the satisfaction of her (now major) label. This is getting long, but I want to propose one other thing that Brown, I think, leaves out: the idea of cultural capital. According to Pierre Bourdieu, both of these artists were caught up in struggles for capital within their respective fields. Now,I'm not the Bourdieuian around here, and we're traveling today, but I'm going to try and get Thers to come on here and explain this to you all in a comment.


Phila said...

The thing about Liz Phair is, she always wanted to be a big glamorous star, and a lot of what seemed uncompromising or personal in her early work (the sex stuff, especially) was sheer, cold-blooded calculation intended to get her towards that point. The Matrix thing was a natural progression, and (I'd argue) an improvement in that she was in her proper element at last.

I don't mean that in a snotty way, either. There's nothing necessarily wrong with grabbing for the brass ring, and nothing necessarily "pure" about being on a small label. I think a lot of the adjustments fans have to make in situations like these have to do with their own misconceptions...this narrative they impose on someone's career. The artists often aid and abet these misconceptions too, of course...which I guess is where the moral issues come in. But a lot of times, people aren't selling out so much as just no longer pretending to be something other than what they are, which can be a good thing (for a while, anyway).

NYMary said...

I think you're right, on a certain level. I was sort of stewing upon what, exactly, Phair's "alternativeness" rested, and I think part of it was a sort of sexual raucousness, which certainly still exists on Liz Phair. Any record in which semen is discussed as a beauty treatment must be granted that, at least.

A friend of mine once opined to me that, in his view, the entire career of Liz Phair could be summed up as follows: "Look! Cute Girl! Plays a guitar! Says 'fuck'!"
(He, a bit older, prefers Nina Gordon and Sam Phillips as chanteuses, and he may be right. But I'll still go to the mat for Mary Prankster, a cute girl with a guitar who says 'fuck' a lot more than Liz Phair.)

But as I noted, the content of Phair's record (jesus, do I still say 'record'?) was always beside the point (NB the resistance to the long-toothed Derridean 'always already,' however.... gotta draw the line somewhere.) This was not about qui parle, but about the comment on parle. Not who, but how. If the same record had been made for SubPop or Merge, without the intervention of The Matrix, it would have been hailed, I suspect.

Thers said...

Bourdieu makes a very useful distinction between what he calls the field of general cultural production and the field of restricted cultural production. He argues that intent is very important when it comes to how a producer wants to market their own cutural products; the key is whether or not the producer is trying to sell to an established market or is trying to create a new market for her or his cultural goods.