Saturday, May 03, 2008

When A Persona Consumes A Life by Anthony McCarthy

Please watch this video of Dusty Springfield singing “The Look of Love” with a slide show of photos of female impersonators of the past, before reading further.

Maybe not the greatest song ever written, but great singing. The slide show raises a lot of questions, the obvious ones being about the manipulation, flexibility and imprecision of the creation and interpretation of appearance, the distance between the image and the life of the person behind the image. And that’s not getting into the more obvious ones of the politics of transgender and the civil rights of people who exercise their right to choose their identity out of those available without regard to taboo. Important as those are.

Now, please watch this one of Dusty Springfield singing “The Son of a Preacher Man” noting her vintage costume and makeup.

You wonder what it might have cost Dusty Springfield to play the part of a straight woman in her singing career, especially since she was one of the first, semi-officially, out lesbians in show business. With the way she could sing, the way she could put meaning even into banal lyrics and move an audience, you wonder if she might have liked to sing a song about loving a woman. I don’t know if the stories about her self-destructive behavior would have been different if she could have just been herself throughout her whole life but it must have taken some tole.

Later in her career Dusty Springfield went with a more natural look, there are You Tubes showing that period. She was a great singer, though some of her material and arrangements didn’t match her abilities. She was a lot like Patsy Cline in that.

Though I often didn’t care for her material, I always respected Dusty Springfield. She had no problem hearing the genius of and promoting black artists who were still dealing with the differentials of the bottom line, the most real and potent color line of them all, even today. And this as she dealt with the one there for even straight white women. That’s what she was doing in a period when other white singers were still ripping black artists off, left and right.

You read that some people said that she was “difficult”, especially the musicians that worked with her. But almost anyone who is a perfectionist in the arts uses what power is at their disposal to get the results they are trying for. She wouldn’t have been the singer she was without trying very hard to realize her ideas. Men generally wouldn’t have faced the same charge from the same behavior. What’s a vice for a woman in relation to men, would get turned into a virtue for a man. No one here has to be told that is generally true.

Remembering the way that Peggy Lee sang the Gershwin song “How Long Has This Been Going On”* and looking for a video to post here a couple of weeks ago was where this piece began to form. Please watch it. You might find the makeup, yellow hair and false eye-lashes a little disturbing. I did, which was the reason I didn’t post it then. But listen to how Peggy Lee could float and hang a phrase in time without it coming down and then rest the next phrase on it with no effort at all. I can hear her do it, I couldn’t begin to tell you how she does it, no matter how many times I listen. I couldn’t imitate it anymore than I could Billie Holiday’s phrasing.

Peggy Lee was a fine artist, by that time an accomplished and experienced professional, who also had problems in life despite her success. Looking at the video, the makeup and look, matched with the steely eye and the icy persona, you might consider that those were taken as an expression of power, back then. Even as the song talked about surrendering to emotion, Peggy Lee was portraying a woman who was putting any man interested on notice that she was her own person. But it’s a rare person who can match that image in life.

Watching all three videos, the two singers and the female impersonators, brings up a lot of ideas about image and the how we portray ourselves to the world, or try to. You could contrast the high level of control the female impersonators had over their elaborately presented images, that of a lesbian who had to portray a straight woman to have a successful music career and a straight woman who had to maneuver through what would have then been explicitly considered and stated to be “a man’s world”. **

You have to think about what it might tell you about how we see ourselves and the ability of an image as seen by other people can overtake our intentions. Once something is out in the public, even an experienced adult has only a limited control of how that image is seen and even used by other people. Making a mistake in presenting an image of yourself is easy to do and hard to put behind you. The audience is fickle and a show business career depends entirely on its audience. Choices aren’t always made wisely or even shrewdly.

I’d heard the name Hannah Montana before this week but had assumed she was an animated character. I hadn’t known there was a 15-year-old Miley Cyrus until now. You have the sick feeling the scandal of the week could be the beginning sign of a too familiar kind of trouble.

Entertainment corporations chew up and spit out young women, who take the brunt of this kind of stuff, at an incredible rate. The age of those spit out seems to get lower all the time. There are scores of lives and careers that get damaged by the insistence on girls living up to a false front, along with the follies of their promoters trying to keep them current in publicity as they grow up. Just growing up is hard enough without people three or more times your age trying to use you.

A 15-year-old girl is not a woman, she isn’t an adult, as pointed out here the other day, she is a child. No one has the right to pretend they believe that she is going to have the maturity, self-confidence and experience to protect herself against the attack of celebrity. Pretending she is able to robs her of the most basic civil right of all children, to protection by adults and by society in general. I include Annie Leibovitz and Vanity Fair in the charge of using her recklessly. Their alibi that her parents were in on the photo-shoot doesn’t suffice. Possible irresponsibility by parents doesn’t make a child fair game for the media. The photographer and magazine have more experience than just about anyone in what can happen when the image they publish is an attempt to gain publicity by breaking an image of innocence, real or artificial. A tediously superficial, and rather repetitious attempt at that most commercially superficial of all modern virtues, ‘transgression’ by flirting with the conventions of soft, antique kiddie porn is what I take from the published images.

For the life of me, I don’t understand what it is some people on the left don’t get about Leibovitz and those who pay her. If she was a sleazy, cigar chomping man four times older than Miley Cyrus, taking exactly the same images, no one would have much problem deciding exactly what to make of it. But she’s Annie Leibovitz, using a girl a quarter of her age to make a splash and sell some pictures. Do these pictures tell us about reality? Can they come close to the celebrity portraits of Lotte Jacobi? No. While part of that is the depth of the subjects, she is no Jacobi.

To lay the responsibility entirely on the parents and others in the entourage of a young girl, doesn’t erase a national magazine’s irresponsibility of joining in a publicity stunt that risked possible damage to a very real girl. “Journalism” isn’t an excuse for using a real, live child like that. Neither is art. What might be a matter of clear cut press freedom without infringement on other peoples’ rights if no real children are used becomes a compromised image when a real child is made use of like this.

* And just because it is great playing, here’s Ben Webster playing the same song.

**Extra Credit: Mae West singing “My Old Flame”, observe and draw your own conclusions.