Welcome to R/V September 2011: The Pop Culture Issue

Hello and welcome to the *new* RE/VISIONIST!  As a matter of form, let me first note that my co-editor Caroline and I are beyond stoked to present the very first (and very fabulous) issue of this year’s line-up.

You may have noticed some changes, both in content and format.  Please consider these a good thing.  While the appearance is different, the underlying core values of RE/VISIONIST have not been altered.  We are still fully committed to generating a full and multidimensional feminist dialogue.

That being said, welcome to our Pop Culture Issue!  No doubt, many will question this choice of topic arguing that it is shallow, inconsequential and without any redeeming academic value.  Some would likely even go so far as to say that the culture surrounding the female pop music star is inherently anti-feminist.  It is with these beliefs in mind that our contributors this month have come up with some counter-arguments and points of debate which shed new light on how we view female pop musicians, but also how we should view the gaze that surrounds them.  The pieces featured in this issue put forth ideas that help foster a contemplation of whether we should reevaluate, and in fact, re-value female pop musicians.

We love this issue, and hope you will too!  If nothing else, maybe it will pique an interest here and there in Britney Spears’ latest record (and Beyonce is nothing to sneeze at either).  Enjoy and thank you for joining us in this venture!

All the best,

Amanda

 (and Caroline. xx)

The Pop Culture Issue:

{ENJOY!}

Deep Play: Katy Perry and the Revenge of the Candy Ravers by Brian Donovan

{Brian Donovan is a cultural and historical sociologist, author of White Slave Crusades: Race, Gender, and Anti-Vice Activism, 1887-1917, and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Kansas.}

Cultural sociologists theorize that musical likes and dislikes tells us more about the listeners than anything inherent in the music. The music we adore mirrors and creates a lifestyle, or habitus, that we share with others and experience individually. Likewise, hating certain types of music and specific performing artists allows us to draw a boundary against groups or individuals that represent threats to our way of life and social position. A new wave of female recording artists (including Britney Spears, Ke$ha, and Lady Gaga) have remade the pop landscape and have helped album sales grow for the first time in seven years. Responses to Katy Perry, in particular, epitomize this cultural moment.

Katy Perry is the first artist to spend an entire year in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100. She has a sold out 2011 summer concert tour, her own line of perfume (Purr), two hit albums, and legions of devoted fans. But critics love to hate Katy Perry.  Matthew Cole decries Perry’s Teenage Dream album as “maladjusted sleaze,” “a raunchy pop nightmare,” and “remarkably shitty.” Cole lamented that “pop music in 2010 already looks like a trainwreck of over-produced bad-girl debauchery, and Teenage Dream only adds to the pileup.” Greg Kot criticizes Teenage Dream’s “Frankenstein-like productions” and criticizes the hit single “California Gurls” as “relentlessly mechanical” with vocals “like a series of syllables digitally stitched together.” Eric Danton described the song as “piled high with buzzing synthesizers and relentless drum-machine beats” and he concluded that “that neither Perry nor her collaborators had much to say that was meaningful, or even particularly interesting.”

Critics’ rejection of popular music is unremarkable, but the terms of their criticism can tell us something about the contemporary cultural moment and the failure of a rock-and-roll aesthetic to make sense of it. This is why the criticism of Katy Perry by (largely) male music critics seems so off-key, like football referees judging a flower show. The main criticisms of Katy Perry represent and reproduce anxieties about dance music generally, its core audience (preteens, women, gays, African American, and Latinos), and the recent ascendency of dance music elements in popular music generally.

Critics typically launch two criticisms against Katy Perry: her music is overproduced (and therefore it’s not really her music) and her style is inauthentic (too derivative, too synthetic, too sexual, and/or too unserious). The critique of her music as overproduced emerges in reviewers’ discussion of her production team as “hired guns.” Kot, for instance, derisively refers to her “squadron of high-dollar song doctors.” The focus on music’s production clings to old notions of authenticity long discredited in electronic dance music culture. In fact, the term “overproduced” has no valance in dance music because it presupposes we should care about the production of music (at all). Simply put, who cares if Katy Perry (or Britney Spears, or Rihanna) uses auto-tune, a vocoder, or special effects? To followers of dance music, rock music critics who point to post-production practices as impure have already lost the argument.

Critics make a similar argument against her style, finding it derivative of past and contemporary female music icons like Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morissette, Spice Girls, Pink, Fergie, Debbie Gibson, and Tiffany. Perry also reflects the Deco styles of the 1920s and ‘30s, and the Old Hollywood glamour of Louise Brooks, Jean Harlow, and Greta Garbo. A third (and overlooked) component of Katy Perry’s style comes from dance music culture itself, particularly the “candy ravers” of the early-mid 1990’s. So-called candy ravers (also referred to as “kandi ravers”) embraced a childlike look replete with furry animal backpacks, multicolored sneakers, cartoon T-shirts, candied necklaces, and lollipop rings. As a group, candy ravers had an especially short patience for the production and authenticity arguments made against dance music and they often gravitated toward the “happy hardcore” subgenre of dance music known for its blip and bleep video game noises and its relentless 140+ beats-per-minute pulse. Candy ravers share a family resemblance with the costume-play (cos play) Japanese streetfashion scene and its kawii aesthetic. Taken together, Katy Perry exemplifies a postmodern style marked by pastiche, eclecticism, and the fluidity of identity. Reports from her 2011 “California Dreams” tour indicate that Perry’s fans not only appreciate her cos play ethos but actively take part in it. Rolling Stone noted that a Katy Perry show “resembled not so much a pop concert as the largest bachelorette party in the world.” Like 1990s club kids and their day-glo makeup and plastic Hello Kitty! jewelry, today’s Katycats revive a sense of play and jouissance characteristic of legendary clubs like the Paradise Garage, but rarely found in the hyper-masculine social spaces of rock and roll.

In the mid-1990s, marketers attempted to hybridize rock-and -roll with dance music to create “electronica,” but they only managed to combine the worst aspects of both species (see, for example, the Chemical Brothers). As a former participant inChicago’s rave and club scenes, I experience warm nostalgia listening to today’s Top 40 pop music. It’s all there: the four-to-the-floor beats, the anthems, the hooks, the ear candy, the diva vocals, and the hallowed-out sounds of the Roland TR-808 synthesizer. Who knew that – twenty years later – the 808s would blast out of the radios instead of abandoned warehouses? Who could have predicted that the syncopated sounds of speed garage and two-step garage would reappear 10-15 years later as “dub step?” What was once underground is now, simply, ground. Pop artists like Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga, along with music producers like Dr. Luke and Max Martin, have successfully harnessed house music to make it their own. Unlike early electronica experiments, artists and producers have revived the spirit of house music by embracing, instead of running from, club culture’s sense of play, its purposeful rejection of authenticity, and its postmodernist bricolage. Instead of reproducing the ignorance and latent misogyny of the rock-and-roll curmudgeons, we should embrace Katy Perry and her newfangled candy ravers with open arms.

BRITNEY: A MANIFESTO by Caroline Biggs

{Caroline Biggs is a graduate student in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College, fashion addict, pop cultural junkie, and girl-about-NYC.}

Britney Spears changed my life. At first, this sentence may seem absurd to you for reasons including (but not limited to): 1. I am nearly 30 years old, 2. It is 2011, 3. I am an educated, self-described feminist, as well as an art, music, and culture-snob, and last [but most frequently] “how on earth could Britney affect anyone other than by providing something to dance to at last call or to make fun of when skimming through Us Weekly at the doctor’s office?” I understand where you are coming from. Defending the idea that Britney can affect anyone positively (above the age of 12 or of any intelligence) can be a daunting task, one that I have been confronted with for almost ten years. That being said, I am not here to sell you a Britney Spears download (although her newest album, Femme Fatale, is worth its weight in gold). Instead, I would like to offer insight as to why you have been socialized and conditioned to dismiss Britney’s value and/or more importantly, how you may have a thing or two to learn from her.

A lot of things are uncertain in this world, but here is one constant: Britney’s fans are the most loyal in the world and will defend her to the grave. Fail safe. To fall in love with Britney involves a lot of time, effort, and awareness–all of which have little to do with her music. Instead, it becomes about articulating your love for her in a society that has encouraged you to reject Britney for what she represents, while forcing her upon you from every which angle imaginable.  And anyone with half-a-brain knows that true devotion is always born of mass resistance and in turn, met with even more opposition.

Case in point: any Britney Spears concert you ever attend (July marked my third) will be sold out and filled with screaming, crying, and overly-protective fans; all of whom are most likely over the age of 20. They have been defending, admiring, and obsessing over Ms. Spears for a long time now—and her shows are a true place of celebratory demonstration. There are tons of joyous tears, fanatical dancing, and a loving-energy that remains unrivaled, in my experience–despite having attended countless shows of the cultish persuasion (Ani diFranco, Tori Amos, Lady Gaga, anyone?).  This is because to know Britney is to love Britney—and her performances are some of the only times in life where one can vocalize support without defense (for at least two whole hours!).

Here is another certainty in life: society is always critical of strong, successful, and powerful women—including the ones that do so while embracing their femininity and prescribed gendered norms. Certainly this is not to suggest that subversive or androgynous women don’t have their own uphill (if not greater) battle (see also: “gaga has a penis”) but rather that we tend to condemn female social power based on appearance (and sexuality) without considering the backlash of the male gaze (and perhaps just as detrimental—the female gaze). Or more aptly put: WE (both men and women) tend to be a lot more critical of the gendered ideal forced upon us by our very own practices—and who has been more sexualized, idealized, and pushed upon us in the past decade than Britney Spears?

But who has been more debased than Britney Spears? First, there was the controversial David LaChapelle photo shoot depicting a 17-year-old Spears stripped so bare you could see the hairs on her tummy. Without any regard for the artistic vision of the famed photographer or Rolling Stone magazine, Britney became the teenage personification of our deepest Freudian Madonna-whore complexes.  And then there was the tumultuous break-up with Justin Timberlake–where the public treated him like the new Michael Jackson (sans the obvious)–yet, despite his talent, he still felt the need to dump all over her publicly to sell his records. By the time she was 21, Britney had become the living, breathing manifestation of our deepest sexual paranoia. She wasn’t the virgin that her publicist and record company made her say she was and as a trained gymnast/dancer (and poster child for the idealized female form) she could DANCE and ENTERTAIN and BE PROUD OF HER FIGURE (heaven forbid she do the job she’s paid to do). Then,to top it all off, she wasn’t apologizing for it. The world was obsessed with her and hated her for it, too.

But anyone who wasn’t born in a cave yesterday knows that you can machete Britney’s public image into two parts: BEFORE and AFTER the nervous breakdown (B.B. and A.B., respectively). Britney B.B. was ostracized for being a sexualized “virgin” who embraced her appearance and her career as an entertainer (Gaga went through Heathrow in a thong but because she doesn’t fake-bake was off the hook) and hit levels of fame that kept her confined to her own diving bell of celebrity. And then she lost her mind (as most of would under that level of scrutiny) making it superlatively heartbreaking to watch her crumble.

That being said, any person who has taken a Psych 101 class should have a pretty good grasp on what Britney A.B. was doing. Having been a child star, developing a sense of self based on others less-than-stellar perceptions can prove a scathing task (um, Dubois, anyone?) So, like most of us have and would–she looked for love in all of the wrong places, got mixed up with some bad crowds, and acted out in ways never before imaginable. Then, after losing custody of her children (followed by a very public hospitalization) the world decided they preferred their Britney a virgin-whore after all. And the world watched in horror and anticipation as the paparazzi and collective industry took on a whole new level of invasiveness.

Britney’s seventh Rolling Stone cover (a feat rivaled to date only by Madonna) in March, 2008 pictured an almost obituary-esque black and white photo of Spears with the macabre headline: “Inside an American Tragedy.” Except that she wasn’t dead, in fact, she was alive and fully aware of the way she was being presented. Britney had gone from virgin to whore, to crazed, bald, umbrella-bearing freak, to terrible mother, to fat, to now the object of public pity all in less than nine years.  The most alarming development of Britney A.B. came with the unprecedented but terrifying decision by the State of California to grant her estranged father legal conservatorship over her life, money, career, home, and physical self (a ruling normally reserved for quadriplegics on life-support not 29-year-old, successful women). Even the law had rendered Britney helpless. Suddenly, the world wanted nothing more than the resurrection of our fallen American-icon, despite still wielding the bloody murder weapon.

And born again Britney was.  Within three years she went from proverbial public trash to the Second Coming—complete with sold-out tours, platinum records, a new doting- boyfriend, and children in tow. And although from the outside she seems to be doing it happily and effortlessly, one should not ignore that she is still under her father’s complete legal control—a one-woman assembly line, providing jobs for hundreds under the guise of “See! She’s all better!” Despite being thrilled for her public turn-around (don’t call it a comeback!), it’s hard to not see her like a broken but bandaged-up baby-doll in the right lighting.

In fact, it’s bittersweet (and quite emotional) as a devoted fan for ten years to be writing this piece on the eve of the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards–where they have been relentlessly plugging a tribute to the legendary Spears. Apparently, just as there was money to be made off of her downfall, there is plenty to be gained from her reclamation. The very people that plotted for both her success and subsequent demise have equal stake in her eventual triumph.

And so, as a feminist and fan of Britney Spears, I have spent over a decade watching and observing what exactly happens when a woman tries to make it on her own by doing exactly what society asks of her. She bleached her hair, stayed fit, danced when asked, made records, and did it all while we hated her for it. And when she tried to deviate from her own circumstances, we punished and pitied her—called her “tragic” in the very magazine that used her image six-times prior to boost sales and circulation.

That being said, I want to be careful to not portray Spears in the oft-criticized second-wave-feminist “victim” role that we are so desperate to subvert and infuse with agency in current feminist activism. Rather, I would like to suggest that Britney fell into the impossible “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” binary that plagues most women today—where she was wrong for embracing her beauty, sexuality, and career and even more at fault for not being able to stay that way.

Not to mention that everything we attack Britney for–whether it be her sexuality, boobs, motherhood, or vagina–is inherently female and (more often than not) a manifestation of our own projections of what female should or shouldn’t be. Or perhaps most importantly, we are jarred by the possibility that what made us so fascinated–and yet so critical–is that deep down, we all have a little Britney in us.

Especially now, as we celebrate “Britney Spears: the Phoenix” rising from the ash of our worst fears and transforming into a near-perfect shell of her former self. It’s hard to use words like “full circle” when you know that at 30 years-old, she still has no legal control over her own life. That’s why I can say unabashedly that “Britney Spears changed my life.” She showed me from a very young age what happens when you follow the proscribed rote of womanhood—complete with a career, looks, and a modern family–where you can do everything right and everything wrong and still not be certain of the difference it makes.

Beyonce: A Visual Essay X John Walker

{John Walker is a Sarah Lawrence graduate who really likes the internet a lot.}


“Well, I care!”

When I was in college, (oh, is that weird to say in the past tense) I always strove to maintain a neutral voice in my academic writing.  Nothing was monolithic; my perspective was never universal.  Well, I’m not in school anymore, and if there is one subject to whom I can ascribe absolute essentialism, it is Beyoncé.  Drawing on entirely anecdotal evidence, she is the pop-cultural icon of our times.  By “our,” I mean “my,” and by “anecdotal evidence,” I mean WHATEVER JUST GO WITH ME.

The following is an account of eight moments in which Beyoncé has defined my personal narrative.  My experience is your experience.  Enjoy!

2000 CE

No doubt coupled with the waning influence of Marilyn Manson, my parents finally unblocked MTV at home.  Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” was in heavy rotation on the network.  By “heavy,” I mean a 30 second clip of the video daily on TRL, which is actually pretty heavy in comparison with the “Music Television” of today. [Cue The Price Is Right horn!]

With Beyoncé anchored front and center, Destiny’s Child conquered both the fake TRL charts, and my real pre-gay heart.  Say her name, I did.  I remember one embarrassing mid-flight exchange with another unaccompanied minor regarding how much we both just LOOOVED Beyoncé.  “I want Beyoncé to be my fiancé.”  I thought I was sewww clever.  I think the fact that I spent an entire flight from Boston to Puerto Rico gushing about how fierce Beyoncé is negates any of the heterosexuality my then 11 year-old self was fronting.  If not that, then definitely when I got mad because the other kid TOTALLY didn’t believe me that Farrah Franklin got kicked out of the group.  Because, really, duh. I just. Duh. You know? Right? Duh.

2002 CE

Following her groundbreaking acting debut in MTV’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera, Beyoncé set her sights on the silver screen.  As Foxxy Cleopatra in Austin Powers in Goldmember, an independently produced art house period piece, Bey really tapped into Foxxy’s psyche, begging the question of what it really means to be “a whole lot of woman.”

In retrospect, this melding of Austin Powers and Beyoncé represents such a pivotal shift in my tastes and interests.  The former symbolizes my youth, my irrepressible childish tittering at hearing the words “penis enlarger.”  The latter evokes my burgeoning queer sensibilities and love of strong, artistic women.  I’m not saying that I came out the next year because of Beyoncé, but I’m also not not saying that.

2003 – 2006 CE

Beyoncé… Hmm… This is odd.  It seems like the records from these years have been destroyed.  I’ve searched up and down the shelves at the John Walker’s Precious Moments Private Library, but all I can find is information on Siouxsie and the Banshees.  And black hair dye.

2007 CE

Ah, here we go.  In 2007, I received my first Beyoncé album, the deluxe re-release of B’Day.  This was the year that my perspective on my musical interests underwent a decisive shift.  After years of publicly shunning pop music, only to blast “Toxic” behind closed doors, I embraced the genre.  Pop music is engineered to be enjoyed.  It is just plain silly not to admit that basic truth.  Lambaste the grossness that is the mainstream music industry, sure, but to deny the catchy-by-design nature of the songs it produces?  Come on, twee-ty bird.  In the eternal words of Kylie Minogue: “You’re getting boring.”

Moving back to our baBey, I feel like the B’Day era was the first time in which Beyoncé really began to assert her developing artistic vision of self.  Whereas Dangerously in Love produced a string of pop hits, it comes across as a collection of hit singles meant to launch a career.  Conversely, B’Day’s lead video for “Déjà vu” features a sultry Bey, swirling in her building insanity.  No back-up dancers.  No explosions.  Just Beyoncé, her voice, and her moves.  Ungh.

2008 CE

If B’Day marked the “rebirth” of Beyoncé as a solo artist, I Am… Sasha Fierce established her as more icon than pop star (more Liza than Britney).  I do not say this as a testament to the music contained within the album. I actually find B’Day to be far superior to the somewhat disjointed 2008 effort.  What leads me to this conclusion, however, is the shift in Beyoncé’s overall presence and presentation.  “Single Ladies” masterfully combines old-school choreography with new-school viral sensationalism, allowing Beyoncé to showcase her strength as a performer.  This was when she convinced me that she will continue to pack arenas for decades to come.

“Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” (which is apparently the full title) also resonates with me on a more personal level.  Not to get too heavy, but I first saw the music video the night before a close friend died.  I remember thinking how pissed I was that I’d never get a chance to watch the video obsessively with him.  He was the guy who reinvigorated my passion for certain contemporary pop artists, Beyoncé included, while simultaneously turning me on to Bikini Kill’s “Suck My Left One.”  I know we would’ve had a lot of fun shrieking about this on YouTube.  No doubt due to his influence, I began thinking of a senior thesis concerning the connections between Riot Grrrl and Beyoncé.  This never got off the ground because it was based on a) “I LOVE BEYONCÉ” and b) she performs live with an all-female band (which Kathleen Hanna notes in this interview).  But hey, being a shameless fanboy isn’t stopping me from writing this article, so…

2009 CE

The most monumental of monumental events happened in 2009.  I don’t think that I can encapsulate all of the emotions swirling around in this memory.  All I can muster is a haiku:

I saw Beyoncé

At Madison Square Garden

This was my Mecca

2010 CE

Huh.  Another missing section in my an-Knowles.  All I see is “Courtney Love is really significant because…” this and “YOU JUST DON’T GET COURTNEY LOVE BECAUSE…” that.  I guess this reflects the blessing and the curse of Beyoncé taking three to four years off between albums.  She returns with high quality music, videos, and live performances, but leaves a huge power vacuum that needs to be fed in her absence.

2011 CE

Aaaaaaand, we’re back.  I cannot get over how impressed I am with Beyoncé’s new album, 4.  From start to finish, it is one, cohesive work.  The twelve solid tracks leave no room for filler.  The lyrics are simple, but what Bey does with her voice is anything but.  All of the vocal weirdness and unconventional riffs that I’ve heard her play around with in her live performances are finally added to the official album tracks. (For examples of what I mean listen to 2:50 – 3:16 on “I Care,” as well as 0:00 – 0:04 of “Countdown”)  To those who were turned off by “Run the World (Girls),” I recommend listening to it in the context of the album, specifically following the preceding track, “I Was Here.”  Coupled together, the lead single takes on a new meaning, one that celebrates the girls and women who will inherit a post-Beyoncé world.

Also: “Swagú”.  Enough said.

I guess I’ve just really appreciated Beyoncé’s evolutionary album coinciding with this next evolution in my own post-grad life.  We work really well together, you know?

Beyoncé, so significant.

Tune in next week, when I discuss the impact of “Single Ladies” on Queen Elizabeth I’s life as the Virgin Queen.

Ten Questions

{Inspired by Proust, I compiled a list of ten questions and sent them out to some of the most fascinating women I knew [or could hope to know]. Every month: their response. This month features the Directors of the renowned Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College: Priscilla Murolo and Rona Holub}

Ten Questions with Priscilla Murolo

1. Describe yourself in one word.

Straightforward.

2. To date, what do you consider your greatest accomplishment? 

Finishing college (at Sarah Lawrence) with two children and a full-time job.

3. What or whom has been your greatest source of inspiration?

The people I’ve met through the labor movement.

4. What quality in others do you find the most admirable?

Perseverance.

5. What quality in others do you find the most deplorable?

Self-absorption.

6. What are your three favorite texts?

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man; John Dos Passos, USA; Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

7. If you could spend one day in history, when and where would it be?

Appomattox, Virginia, April 9, 1965, to witness the Confederate surrender.

8. Finish the thought: “Feminism is . . .”

Feminism in as diverse as women themselves.  We define ourselves, our needs and our rights in many different ways.

9. What is something about you others would be surprised to know?

I know how to use firearms.

10. What are your words to live by?

Thank you.  (Life has brought me so many good things that I’m grateful each and every day, even when I’m in a bad mood.)

{Priscilla Murolo is the co-director of the Women’s History Program at SLC, author of From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States and a hero to many.}

Ten Questions with Rona Holub

1. Describe yourself in one word.

Short.

2. To date, what do you consider your greatest accomplishment?  

Staying alive, relatively sane, and decent in a really screwed up yet strangely beautiful world or getting my PhD from Columbia and staying alive, relatively sane and decent in a really screwed up yet strangely beautiful world (tough question).

3. What or whom has been your greatest source of inspiration?

My mother.

4. What quality in others do you find the most admirable?

Open-mindedness and ability to change attitudes and beliefs for the better.

5. What quality in others do you find the most deplorable?

Demonization of goodness: greediness, meanness, lack of kindness and generosity.

6. What are your three favorite texts?

U.S. Constitution; Vanity Fair; City of Women [Christine Stansell].

7. If you could spend one day in history, when and where would it be?

In the audience at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Conference in Akron listening to Sojourner Truth (can’t think of any other reason to be in Ohio).

8. Finish the thought: “Feminism is . . .”

the belief in (and activism that promotes) Civil and Human Rights for all women to the benefit of all humankind

9. What is something about you others would be surprised to know?

I like 1940s World War II Movies.

10. What are your words to live by?

“… we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”  (Mark Vonnegut in answer to his father’s question on what life is all about.  This seems to make good sense to me, so I’ve taken it as my words to live by).

{Rona Holub is the co-director of the Women’s History Program at SLC, currently finishing her book on historical women and crime, and a New Yorker in every sense of the phrase.}

xx-Caroline

Listen: Hawley Shoffner

{LISTEN!}

I first met Hawley Shoffner when I was an undergraduate at the University of Kansas. I was always the loud, boisterous, blonde at the party and she was the cute, stylish, brunette (rumored to be a near-prodigal musician). All I knew was that she had a ukulele, a love of old Hollywood, and quite the soft spot for Veruca Salt. Needless to say, I fell in love. And so has the rest of the country. Over the past few years I’ve watched her evolve from playing quiet, smoky, dive-bar shows (often with just a keyboard and her crystalline vocals) to winning the coveted and cut-throat Farmer’s Ball competition in 2008—quite the feat considering she was a solo act. But her talent transcends the typical singer/songwriter formula.  Somewhere between her evocative voice and cathartic soliloquies, she’s made a name for herself as a revered musician in a widely known boys-club—finally recording her debut album after years of lending her writing, vocal, and instrumental skills to various touring and recording bands (NoiseFM, California Wives). Now with shoutouts on Refinery 29 and comparisons to the likes of St. Vincent–it’s safe to say she is on the track to great things. Settling into her new Chicago home and days after her album release show, we talked pianos, historical biographies, and Patti Smith. [Naturally.]

R/V:  I’ve seen you play at least a dozen different instruments; tell me about learning to play your first one.

HS:  I started playing piano when I was six. My piano teacher thought I’d never amount to anything because I couldn’t play through a whole song without messing up one note and starting all over again. Plus, I never learned how to sight read sheet music because I would spend nights memorizing each piece of music; writing out each note on a piece of paper and humming a tune to go along with it. I couldn’t stand being unprepared or improvising, which would explain why I played music solo for so long.

R/V: Do you have a favorite?

HS:  Right now, my main focus is the electric guitar. It’s exciting to try out new pedals and playing techniques. I’ve never played loud music before, and it’s so refreshing. I also play the accordion, ukulele, piano, and a kazoo attached to a harmonic holder.

R/V: Describe your album in three words or less.

HS:  everything at once.

R/V:  What or whom have been your greatest sources of inspiration for this record?

HS: My inspiration for this first album was basically growing up and taking responsibility for my anxiety problems. I would latch onto a musician or historical figure after reading their biography or autobiography and immediately have to write a song about our shared experiences. Writing in a detached sort of way or through someone else makes it easier for me to confront my own issues. I wrote two new songs after reading Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” and a John Cale book that a nice man lent me while I was working at an antique store in Lawrence, KS.

R/V: Writing is tough stuff on its own accord; yet you manage to balance melody, tone, vocals, and lyrics seamlessly. What’s the creative process like?

HS:  My song-writing process is a bit scattered. Generally, I’ll write a line or so of the lyrics first. Then I’ll come up with a melody and try to structure the song around that. I’ll then write the final version of the lyrics after I’ve figured out the full melody. The mood or feeling of a song can change drastically during band practice. A quiet song can easily transform into a loud or angry one.

R/V: What is your favorite track on the album and why?

HS:  “Suzannah.” It’s the latest track on the album and it illustrates my feelings of moving to a big city far away from my family in Kansas. It’s meant to reassure those outside of their comfort zones.

R/V: You own more records than anyone I know. I think you go to the record store like most people shop for groceries. Who are you currently listening to?

HS:  I’m currently listening to Little Ann’s “Deep Shadows,” VA – “Chicas! Spanish Female Singers 1962-1974” and Oh Land’s self-titled release.

R/V: Ok. My favorite final question for anyone I adore—what are your words to live by?

HS:  Everything should be beautiful.

           [photo credits: Carolina M. Rodriguez (album cover) and Sean Schmidt (live shot)]

{Check out Hawley’s website at www.hawleyshoffner.com  for upcoming shows or purchase her album at http://www.etsy.com/listing/79234914/hawley-debut-cd?ref=af_shop_order . You can see her next singing back-up for California Wives (http://www.californiawives.net/ ) at North Coast Music Festival on September 3rd and with a full band at Silvie’s Lounge [Chicago] on September 9th with Cross Record.}

-xx-Caroline

 

On Being a Woman: Thoughts on the “Reality” of Jersey Shore by K. Reece

{K. Reece is a writer with a BA from Wellesley College and an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the assistant editor at Sarah Lawrence magazine.}

“GTL, Kate, GTL.”

I clear my throat and adjust my phone.

“Excuse me?” I ask. “What the hell does ‘GTL’ stand for?”

“Gym, tan, laundry,” he says. “That’s what Mike and Pauly D say. I’ve gotten into it. Jersey Shore, I mean. I even just friended them on Facebook.”

He laughs a little. I don’t.

“So let me get this straight. You go to the gym now, and you tan?”

“Yeah.” He laughs again.

“What’s the big deal, sister?”

What’s the big deal? The big deal is that Jersey Shore gets to take credit for teaching my 27-year-old brother to do laundry. The big deal is that I’ve been trying to drag him outside with me to run or go to the gym for years—when he put down his cigarettes long enough.

Something about the dudes from Jersey Shore appeals to my brother more than his kid sister’s opinions. Okay, not so hard to believe—I get it. And I know, I know; you’ve read dozens of articles bemoaning the inanity of Jersey Shore and its cult following that can be spotted rocking sequined tee shirts and orange skin.

I’ve also just made a case for them that’s even slightly positive. “So, your brother is hygienic, finally works out, and gets his vitamin D? Riiiight. That’s too bad.”

But my aunt owns a home on the actual Jersey shore, and an alarming scowl transforms her otherwise gentle and kind face whenever she talks about how the show has altered peoples’ impressions of the location of her beloved summer home, which she associates with precious family memories, a gorgeous beach, and time spent quietly recharging her soul.

To me, the experience of watching reality television is similar to kicking a soccer ball with all of your strength, and missing. All that energy doesn’t get to leave your body, and the momentum of your swinging leg has the potential to fling you horizontal, delivering you flat on your ass.

Journalist and professor Neal Gabler notes in his 2000 book Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality that an entertainment-driven culture is one where “the standard of value is whether or not someone can grab and hold the public’s attention.” Things that require concentrated thought and serious reflection, things that might provoke us to question our own reality—that we’re sitting on the couch watching a herd of fools parade around, pump their fists, and propagate idiocy—don’t seem to be given much consideration anymore.

The novelists, thinkers, and artists I most admire and respect are each deeply obsessed and propelled by questions such as: How should we live? Why are we here, and what must we be? What is to be done about prejudice, poverty, war, and the small yet persistent injustices we witness daily? If our television shows accurately reflect the substance of what occupies our imaginations, then our society is in general, uninterested in these questions—much less in seeking answers.

I grew up being stunned and horrified by the 1998 film “The Truman Show,” in which Jim Carrey plays an insurance salesman who discovers his entire life is actually a television show. But now, this idea is calmly accepted as not just normal, but a goal towards which to aspire. Reality TV stars get to be actors in the shallow and self-important drama of their lives. They perform their roles constantly, with loudness and attention being indicators of success, instead of being satisfied with the infinitely puzzling, painful, complex, and often wonderful experience of just being human.

Jersey Shore’s August premiere of its fourth season had a record-breaking 8.8 million viewers. Maybe some of those viewers laughed off the absurdity of it, and were able to place those thirty minutes in their proper context. But I know at least one person that matters to me who didn’t, who absorbed Mike and Pauly D’s lifestyle as ideal and worthy of emulation.

T.S. Eliot writes in “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets, that human kind “cannot bear very much reality.” If the Jersey Shore is what we’re choosing to label reality these days, then I’m glad I can’t bear very much of it.