April 1, 2008

Welcome to Pretentiousdome

Back-to-back posts by jenn and =p= about female pop artists have kind of gotten me thinking about the ideological underpinnings of the "girl group". This is going to hurt when I read it back, and kill me when I hit "publish," but why the hell not? Has the "girl group" hit postfeminism? Did it in fact help CAUSE postfeminism? Are female solo artists subsumed by the same artistic trends? I'll just throw out a few bits of analysis and hope something sticks.

First, let me set the terms. "Feminism," in the sense I use (and embrace) it, is the concept that gender is a value-neutral concept. You're a man or you're a woman, but ethically you're on an equal playing field. With literal anatomical differences excepted - like, the fact that women are uniquely equipped to have babies and men are uniquely equipped to, I don't know, teabag - "male" vs. "female" is a moot argument. In this construct, success is a meritocracy. A good feminist pop symbol would be Joni Mitchell. In a more classical vein, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, who both acted "like men" and frankly didn't give a shit, represent early feminist archetypes in music.

"Postfeminism" is the notion that on a truly level playing field, individuals have free reign to use any tools at their disposal to get ahead. In the case of women, this can involve reverting to old ploys of vamping up sexual features and playing coy to manipulate the weaker among us. The appearance is of a devolved attitude, but postfeminists accept it ironically. It's a game just like working harder in the office if you're more disciplined or running faster on the track if you're... faster. Postfeminism in music might be best personified by early-90's Madonna, who obviously used her sexuality aggressively as a marketing tool but who, in hindsight, proved shrewd enough to generate a good amount of her own material and succeed on the business end at several times the clip of many of her male contemporaries.

The "girl group," which had its genesis in the 1950's and hit its popular stride in the 1960's, transitioned uneasily from pre-feminism to feminism, found its construct unsuitable to then-current notions of female liberation, and then eased back into popularity in the 1980's. Right now, we may or may not have a bit of a renaissance on. Time will tell. But you really can't identify much of the current musical landscape without at least some point of reference vis-a-vis the girl group. After all, The Ronettes and The Crystals were the two most famous products of Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound", which created most production templates for baroque pop, orchestral rock, Pet Sounds, ornately-arranged soul and therefore both funk and disco, etc. And The Supremes were the best-selling group on the entire Motown roster, male or female. But the history of the girl group as an artistic unit is checkered: the three above examples did not compose all but a few of their own songs (none in the case of The Crystals and Supremes), controlled very little of their business, and individual members were liable to be hired, fired, and sexually exploited (even married, if you're Ronnie Spector) by their production teams. The Shangri-Las were slightly more successful in this respect because, if nothing else, they challenged more cultural norms with the subject matter and presentation of their songs - they sang about death, runaways, and probably rape (on "Past, Present, and Future") - but ultimately the girl group proved overly susceptible to the svengali/ingenue dynamic imposed by the kind of crazy producer who would think it a good idea to keep a motorcycle revving in the recording booth while having bell chimes play chromatic scales over minor chords in the strings (looking at YOU, Shadow Morton). Diana Ross became so liberated that she didn't need Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard anymore to cut records, Mary Weiss became a J.D. Salinger-facsimile in Manhattan, and Ronnie divorced Phil before he could murder her.

So, fast forward to the early 1980's, when all-girl rock bands weren't insanely uncommon owing to The Shaggs, The Slits, The Runaways, The Go-Go's, etc... and heeeeeere's BANANARAMA. Perhaps unfairly maligned due to the lightness of "Cruel Summer," and "Venus", the group deserves some props for at least trying to bring relevance to the art of girl group-form. I mean, Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols got them their record deal. They sang a song about Travis Bickel and rape and its inhumanity and put it in the British charts. But they were still treading cultural water at the margins of feminism because the group's image was tightly governed by the production team of Stock, Aitken, and Waterman that took over the group's management after their self-titled second album stalled behind the single "Rough Justice." The artistic merit of girl groups was perhaps revisited at this time, and there was a bit of a revival on both sides of the Atlantic by groups like En Vogue in the U.S. (quintessential postfeminists, perhaps pioneeringly so... re: "Free Your Mind" and "Don't Let Go", though initially a vehicle for the songwriters Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy) and The yes jenn here you go Spice Girls in the U.K. who, ironically, fired the manager who assembled them and found themselves saddled with typical girl-singer designations like "Sexy," "Posh," and "Sporty"via the British press and not label promotions.

Both groups evince postfeminism in their presentations as liberated but sexually-desiring and -desirable women. Both groups participated in their own songwriting. At the end of the day, there's not a lot of irony read into the material of either act, but the overall construct of the girl group kind of got neatly reversed by the business models and musical M.O.'s of acts like the above two.

Now we're absorbing a more literal revival movement in which aggressively retro acts like The Pipettes, who write all their own material and revel in the irony of using bygone notions of fashion and comportment as positioning tools for their product, are gaining popularity by nontraditional media channels while groups like The Pussycat Dolls are (correctly) critically reviled for essentially failing to advance beyond the exploitationist business model of the old "retrograde" girl group. It might just be that the girl group is finally incorporating the influence of female solo performers - a thing it has failed to do in the past, which doomed Bananarama after the rise of Madonna and Annie Lennox and doomed the girl group movement of the 1960's with the beginning of feminism as an ideology - and allowing artistic currents to more actively involve message with music and image...

Or maybe I'm just a nerd who overthinks everything and then overtypes those thoughts.

Anyway, I'm sort of excited by all of this. I guess that's the whole point, here.

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