Category Archives: Music

Ambiguity, Tashlin-style

When I set up this blog with WordPress, the site sensibly encouraged me to create categories for my posts; this I did: you can see them over there, on the right —>

What with Frank Tashlin on my brain lately, it occurs to me that two of those categories – Tashlin and Ambiguities – mutually reinforce each other to a certain extent. That is, when I stop to think about it, I realize that my now-decades-long interest in Tashlin is due, in part, to the fact that I admire the ambiguities that are essential to his work. Indeed, I believe that Tashlin’s best work is his most ambiguous, and vice versa.

I intend to use this website to expand on some of the ideas in Tashlinesque, so this seems like a perfect opportunity to do so, especially since the particular ambiguity that I wish to discuss, from Tashlin’s great 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It, is one that I mention in the book only in a (lengthy) footnote. I am focusing on this ambiguous moment because I think it is especially incisive.

The Girl Can’t Help It is about a semi-reformed mobster, Fats Murdock (Edmond O’Brien) who hires a down-on-his-luck talent agent, Tom Miller (Tom Ewell), to make his protegée, singer Jerri Jordan (Jayne Mansfield), into a big star. Miller doubts that even his best efforts will ever make a singing sensation out of Jerri, for the very sensible reason that she has a singing voice that shatters lightbulbs. Miller tells Fats that he doesn’t think that Jerri will ever be a star. One evening, when Jerri, Miller, and Jerri’s maid, Hilda (Juanita Moore), are together at Jerri’s house, Fats calls them and angrily demands that they turn on the television so they can watch Eddie Cochran performing on a variety show. Fats’s point is that Cochran has an unusual voice, too, and he’s a big star; Fats irately rejects Miller’s claim that Jerri is unpromotable. Even though neither Miller nor Jerri “gets” why someone with so odd a presence and voice as Eddie Cochran can be famous and well-loved, they resign themselves to redoubling their own promotional efforts.

(As a side note, let me say that Fats was 100% correct about the unusualness of Eddie Cochran’s voice and performance style. I love the guy’s music, but it really was kind of odd. His vocal style, his guitar-playing, and his movements may all be aptly described as “herky-jerky” and/or “hiccupy.” He really did cut a strange figure. Knock yourself out on the YouTube.)

The scene only becomes ambiguous when we see Miller’s, Jerri’s, and especially Hilda’s responses to Cochran’s performance of “Twenty-Flight Rock. A clip of the scene is below.

This is how I describe the scene, and its ambiguity, in my book:

Tashlin makes a very ambiguous joke about the song’s racial origins. While Tom and Jerri watch Cochran with mild befuddlement, Jerri’s black maid, Hilda (Juanita Moore), demonstrates her enjoyment of the song by dancing around Jerri’s living room. When Miller looks at her questioningly, Hilda makes a smiling gesture of dismissal and leaves the room, still dancing.

The scene’s stance on racial matters is uncertain. Hilda, the only black person in the scene, seems to have a “deeper connection” to the music – arguably a version of the stereotype about the hypersexuality and “natural rhythm” of black people. But Hilda is also the only character to connect to the music on an authentic level: the song was made to be danced to, and she enjoys dancing to it. Jerri and Tom – both of whom are involved in the music industry – don’t know what to make of the song. For them, Cochran’s style is nothing more than a successful business model. This is precisely the kind of challenging, ambiguous cultural satire that Tashlin favors, as it reinforces the notion that rock music is both debased and authentic – a dynamic that was and is undeniably relevant to the American music industry.

 — Ethan de Seife (me!), Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012, p. 235).

The most challengingly ambiguous element of this scene is, as noted, its attitude toward matters of race. Complicating and related to this ambiguity is Tashlin’s double-edged attitude toward popular music, and popular culture in general. Two interlocking ambiguities for the price of one!

The problem is this: it is important for us to grasp that, of the three characters, only Hilda genuinely enjoys Cochran’s performance. This is important because the satire of the scene requires us to understand that for Fats, Jerri, and Miller – even though they are all sympathetic protagonists – popular music like that of Eddie Cochran is just a way to make a buck. (Though it should be noted that, as is apparent in the clip above, Fats enjoys the song, too.) The only character to treat the music as 100% artistically valid is Hilda: her dismissive gesture as she exits the room provides humorous visual confirmation that Jerri and Miller do not “get it,” a fact reconfirmed by their body language, and by the clueless looks on their faces. This is just one of many ways that Tashlin, throughout his career, uses satire to criticize the very popular-culture industries that provided his livelihood. This criticism gets at the central dilemma of popular culture: if it’s mass art intended for mass consumption and mass profit, is it still artistically worthwhile, or is it too “debased”? (The very existence of this website should demonstrate my position on this matter, but I do think that the question is still relevant and worthy of exploration.)

But: if Hilda’s response to “Twenty-Flight Rock” is genuine and authentic – and, again, it is important to the scene and the film that her response is genuine and authentic – then the scene raises another ambiguity: is this a scene of racial stereotyping? There is no easy answer, especially at nearly sixty years’ remove from the film’s release: a topic as vast and complex as racial attitudes of the mid-1950s are difficult to reconcile with modern perspectives on race – which are no less fraught, of course.

Is Tashlin suggesting that Hilda’s authentic reaction to rock music is somehow related to the fact that she is black? Maybe. The possibility exists for this reading, and seems to be confirmed in several of the film’s other scenes of musical performance (of which there are many): Tashlin generally presents the Caucasian musicians as silly and frivolous, and the African-American musicians as somehow more authentic or even ennobled. (Doesn’t matter if the stereotype is a “positive” one; it’s still a stereotype.) White musicians like Nino Tempo and The Chuckles sing extremely lightweight songs in The Girl Can’t Help It; black musicians like Fats Domino and Little Richard sing, frankly, better songs, and are presented far more reverentially. The best example of this latter tendency is surely Abbey Lincoln’s performance of “Spread the Word,” which for me is one of the visual highlights of the film.

Lincoln’s astounding beauty is presented in a terrific, symmetrical composition, a choice that grants a certain gravity to her performance. (As well, her song is about religion: rather a more serious [albeit more swingin’] subject than the “cinnamon sinner sellin’ lollipop lies” that The Chuckles sing about.) Especially when Tashlin cuts between the shots of Abbey Lincoln and Jayne Mansfield herself, we get a sense of the different attitudes he has to these two women and what they represent in the story of The Girl Can’t Help It. Lincoln and Mansfield are dressed in similarly figure-hugging dresses: Lincoln’s is deep orange, and Mansfield’s red. Their body-types are in fact fairly similar. But Lincoln looks distinguished as she stands quite still, undulating only mildly: it is primarily her hands that sway. Mansfield accentuates, for comic effect, each thrust of her hip and dip of her shoulder: at this point in the film, Miller is “building up” Jerri Jordan, having her sashay through every nightclub in town in order to attract attention to her outrageous curves. (He is cynical enough to know that Jerri’s singing ability has nothing to do with her ability to land a record contract.) In other words, Jerri/Mansfield is an emblem of tawdriness: she is literally selling herself, all for the sake of the pop-culture industry. Whereas Abbey Lincoln, playing herself, is more restrained and elegant, and seemingly represents the good that can result when popular music focuses not on commercialism but on authenticity.

But maybe these meanings don’t really have anything to do with race. Perhaps the key word really is “authenticity,” but not an authenticity that is necessarily grounded in racial identity. Tashlin’s principal interest seems to be the exposure of cheap, crappy, in-it-for-the-money forms of popular art. Abbey Lincoln’s song is treated reverentially because it is a great song that depends on and exceeds vernacular traditions; Eddie Fontaine’s performance of “Cool It Baby” makes Fontaine look silly because it is silly: at best, this is a featherweight song. Eddie Cochran’s performance itself shatters the idea that authenticity is based in racial identity: Tashlin’s presentation of Cochran’s number — similar in its starkness to the presentation of “Spread the Word” — imbues it with a certain elegance and praise. The song is great; it’s the carnival-barker-style variety-show host (Peter Potter, an actual 1950s TV host) who comes off like a huckster; so, too, do Jerri and Tom, for their inability to access the meanings in the song that have to do with anything other than making a profit. Cochran may be weird, but his song is actually pretty excellent.

Still, the answers here are not easy to come by, in part because Tashlin directs some of that same criticism toward himself. After all, he was making a film for Twentieth Century-Fox that was designed in large part as a promotional tool for the many musical artists who appear in it. Tashlin was selling out, too, and he knew it. He just happened to have good taste in music, and in art in general, and decided to use his not-insignificant filmmaking abilities to give us clues about which of the performers he felt had some talent, and which of them were just cashing in on rock and roll, the biggest and most current pop-culture fad of the day. Such meanings would not be as accessible to us – nor as compelling – were they not presented in an ambiguous fashion. Ambiguities such as these are useful and worthwhile precisely because they raise troubling notions, a fact that can give a text some serious power.

 

Postscript

This is the first of my posts to have been written largely from a moving vehicle. When I wrote most of the above post, I was on a bus to Boston, where I presented a paper at the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. Apparently, they have the internet on buses now. Fascinating.

The paper I presented is unrelated to Tashlin, but it does concern an ambiguous text: Neil Young’s sprawling, utterly fascinating Greendale project, thoughts about which have been rattling around in my brain ever since I saw a performance of the Greendale stage show in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in March of 2004. I am happy to report that, once that presentation is significantly revised, a written version of it will be published in Broken Arrow, the venerable (125 issues and counting!) journal of the Neil Young Appreciation Society. My writing is, I suppose, mostly scholarly, though not forbiddingly so, I like to think. At least, I always try to write in an accessible and engaging fashion, to the best of my abilities. I have long had an interest in “fan culture” (and in fact gave a lecture on that very subject just last week in my class on Hong Kong Cinema), but most of my writing has appeared in academic journals of various types. So I am really pleased that an essay of mine will appear in a fan journal, especially one whose focus is one of my favorite artists of any kind. I’ll write more about the Greendale presentation here soon. Until then, dig into that Greendale site a bit. Weird, compelling stuff.

Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, "We're only in It for the Money"
Why? What are YOU in it for?

Ambiguity #4: Robert Plant: Environmentalist or Stoner? Or both?

Back in high school, a good friend of mine used to work at a local skate shop, and I would sometimes hang out with him there. His job was to sell skateboard parts and bike pads and suchlike to local kids, but we spent far more time hanging out and watching videos on the wall-mounted TV. This being a skate shop, the TV was ostensibly to be dedicated to the showing of VHS tapes showing the greatest moves and tricks of Tony Hawk and co., but when that grew tiresome, he would pop in concert films.

One of the heavy-rotation movies was Led Zeppelin’s 1976 concert film The Song Remains the Same – though this was the late 1980s, my friends’ and my audio diet was quite heavy on the “classic rock” of the 1960s and ‘70s, and Zep was one of our standbys. (Haven’t listened to them in years now, but I suppose they’re fine. Always liked the odder Zeppelin stuff, like “No Quarter.” Anyway.) Actually, now that I think about it and do a teensy bit of internet research about it, maybe the Led Zeppelin concert film we watched was not The Song Remains the Same, but rather some sort of bootlegged concert film of some kind. No matter, though.

The lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s inescapable song “Stairway to Heaven” – you know, the song that classic-rock radio stations all across the nation declared, year after year, to be the Single Greatest Song Ever Recorded In The Whole Rockin’ History of the World – read, in part,

And it’s whispered that soon if we all call the tune

Then the piper will lead us to reason.

And a new day will dawn for those who stand long

And the forests will echo with laughter.

In various versions of this song – I honestly don’t remember now if this was exclusive to live versions, or if this may be found in the album version, as well – Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin’s lead singer, would often append, at the end of this verse, a spoken question: “Does anybody remember laughter?” The implication of this query was something along the lines of “Our modern world is so sad – we have lost touch with the very spirit of laughter,” or something more or less like that. I don’t necessarily consider Zeppelin to have been hippies, but that sentiment – and, indeed, much of the imagery in “Stairway to Heaven” – certainly jibes with the general hippie ethos.

Anyway, in the particular Led Zeppelin concert film that we watched so often in the back of the skate shop in my hometown, Plant, apparently extemporaneously, changed the words of that little post-verse query. His question was now

Does anybody remember forests?

This little lyrical change — which you can hear, in an excerpt, in the YouTube link below — creates a small but historically interesting ambiguity.

When I was 16, and my friends and I heard, in the live version of “Stairway to Heaven,” Robert Plant make this little change, our immediate assumption was that Plant was really stoned, and forgot the lyrics to a song that he had co-written. Knowing what we knew, even then, about the recreational drug use by the members of Led Zeppelin, this was not an unreasonable assumption. Those guys did a lot of drugs.

But there’s surely at least one other potential reading, and it strikes me now as the more likely. Maybe Robert Plant, in identifying forests, rather than laughter, as a long-lost, unremembered entity, was attempting to call our attention to the deterioration of global environmental conditions. Admittedly, it would have been a somewhat meager wake-up call: a single, ambiguous, uncontextualized line in a pop song does not an environmentalist make. But, even if it was not necessarily making daily headlines in the mid-1970s (or whenever that concert took place), deforestation was a known fact back then. First-wave environmentalists like Rachel Carson and John Muir, both dead by then, had raised that call quite loudly; more contemporaneously, the outspoken John Brower was indeed a figure whose name appeared in print quite often by the early 1970s. (Brower is the subject of John McPhee’s terrific 1971 book Encounters with the Archdruid, among other mainstream publications.) Though it was not the coherent movement/phenomenon that it is today, environmentalism was surely a “known thing,” and perhaps Robert Plant, in making that lyrical change, meant to align himself with it. It certainly seems plausible.

If indeed I can be said to have one, my point about this extremely mild ambiguity is just that: historical context can and often does play an important role in how we read texts. As I’ve noted, 20+ years ago, my particular frame of reference (rock ‘n’ roll, classic-rock radio, rock history in general [hell, I’d read Hammer of the Gods by that point in my life]) encouraged me to opt for the “druggie” reading; today, having witnessed the American environmentalist movement, and its attendant generalized environmental awareness, rise to prominence over the last two decades or so, I’m far more inclined to opt for the environmentalist reading of Plant’s reference to ill-remembered forests.

It is, I would submit, an entirely natural and reasonable thing to read or interpret texts by reference to the historical context that is most prominent or dominant in one’s mind or experience at the time of encountering the text. When we are aware of, or alerted to, a specific phenomenon on a regular basis, that phenomenon assumes a greater importance to us, and may be seen to serve as a kind of lens through which we understand other phenomena. A current example may be the way in which everyone talks about the “carb” content of food these days – a fairly new development in nutrition, and one which I think we can safely attribute to all of the attention that such programs as the Atkins Diet have received over the last decade or so. I don’t ever recall even the staunchest dieter talking about carbs as recent as fifteen years ago. When a text is ambiguous – even mildly so, as in the case with the live version of “Stairway to Heaven” – we are all the more likely to understand it through the lens of the context or frame of reference which is, at the time that we encounter the text, more pertinent and prominent in our minds.

I have no idea, by the way, why this particular song and its attendant small ambiguity entered my brain recently. I haven’t heard “Stairway” (as we used to call it) in years, and I don’t do a lot of thinking about Led Zeppelin or forests. But it does strike me as a good example of how different historical contexts can suggest new meanings for a text.

Corrections and country music

Greetings, all eleven of you kind people who read this infrequently updated blog! The first month of the academic year has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of work that I have had to do – including many meetings, which are just oh so much fun – which means that the blog has been a fairly low priority lately. And since I don’t want to make insubstantial blog entries, I decided it was better to wait. Still, I do hope to post more frequently in the near future.

The purpose of this long-overdue post is actually to do some updatin’ and clarifyin’ of a few of the points that I made in a couple of my earlier posts.

In this post, I discuss the difficulty of quantifying the features of cinema; my main example is shot scale, the basis for which is “the human figure,” an object that comes in lots of different shapes and sizes. I see now, as I did in writing that post, that I have an opportunity to post that extremely excellent photo of Muggsy Bogues and Manute Bol (RIP), and so I will do just that.

Can't really get enough of this one.

In that essay on the unquantifiability of film style, I make an offhand reference to what I called “the one true kilogram”: the one that’s under a bell jar in a lead-lined basement in a French research lab. (Its actual nickname is “Le Grand K,” which is far better than my lame coinage.) It turns out – and this article has been making the rounds lately – that even that Mother of All Kilograms is itself not entirely quantifiable! It’s been “losing weight” over time – to the tune of several atoms every few years! – an occurrence that actually has some fairly serious ramifications not just for people who like to measure things (known as metrologists, no kidding) but for science in general. An excellent article by Jonathon Keats in Wired addresses this very subject.

And here’s a good, interesting MetaFilter discussion/thread about the article, which I read before I got to Keats’s piece in my actual hard copy of Wired, one of the two magazines I still subscribe to. (The other is Mojo, still the best rock music magazine in the world.)

More substantively, a lawyer friend of mine (who asked not to be identified) wrote to me to point out a few errors with some of the information in my post on the mild verbal ambiguities in the old jingle for Shasta cola. His points really are accurate, and I felt that, in the spirit of, you know, scholarship, I should include them here.

My friend – whom I’ll call Philbin, for ease of verbiage, and because I like the sound of it – takes issue with my point that “companies turn their products’ names into verbs all the time,” remarking that this “is something they avoid like the plague, since the result is genericization, which results in a loss of trademark rights for the name involved.” Of course, Philbin is correct. I composed that entry too hastily, and should have noted that it is not the companies that turn their products’ names into verbs, but, rather, us regular folk, when we use “scotch tape” to refer generically to any adhesive tape, or when we use “googling” as a verb, for instance.

Philbin himself notes the irony that occurs when companies respond indignantly (in letters to the editor, e.g.) to such usages, which, after all, are the result of the fact that language is a living, changing entity: “Of course, the very fact that a company finds itself compelled to send letters like this, or even to file lawsuits, constitutes a tacit admission on their part that the term is, in popular parlance, being used as a verb, and has lost its capacity to distinguish the source of the goods or services involved.” Indeed.

Philbin further points out that my example of Dr. Scholl’s gel insoles was a poor one, “because ‘gel’ was never a Dr. Scholl’s trademark or product brand in the first place. ‘Gellin’’ is no more an example of the phenomenon than ‘I’m lovin’ it’ would be an example of genericization of a McDonald’s mark, because McDonald’s has never asserted that ‘love’ (as a noun) is a McDonald’s trademark. In order to serve as valid examples of the phenomenon you’re hoping to demonstrate the existence of, someone in the ad would have to say, ‘I’m Schollin’ as I’m strollin’,’ or ‘I’m pounding down a Quarter Pounder® … I’m quarter poundering!’ or something along those lines.”

My point should have been that brand names are diluted by the public, not by the companies who come up with them. Hopefully, this does not weaken the post too thoroughly. It certainly doesn’t weaken that Shasta ad with Barry Williams, I’ll tell you what.

Speaking of weakening, Philbin the lawyer also notes that my use of the phrase “weaken the copyright” is not accurate, either, since I’m really talking about weakening trademarks. Contritely, I admit to conflation of those two terms. Good thing I’m not a patent attorney. Like I was saying, film studies is an excellent field of study for those of us who are not very good at quantifying things. And it all comes full circle.

Speaking of trademarks, here’s the late, great Porter Wagoner performing “That’s My Trademark,” a song of his own composition, on television (anyone know the name of the show?) in 1953.

I had never heard his own (truncated) version of that song before – I know it from Carl Smith’s version, which is also excellent.

No video per se, alas – just a nice picture of Carl Smith, who, like Porter Wagoner, died only recently.

Even though it really has nothing to do with the actual contents of this post, let me here declare that old time country music is the best. You can find a treasure trove of it here, and on lots of other fine sites.

Ambiguity #2: “The HIV Song”

Here’s a recent-ish post from the lovely blog for Continuum Press’s “33 1/3” series of pocket-sized books about individual albums. It’s an excerpt from that series’s book on Ween’s Chocolate and Cheese – specifically, that album’s semi-notorious tune “The HIV Song.”

I couldn’t possibly love Ween any more than I already do. I’m glad to see them finally getting their due. Too long were they dismissed as “joke rock”; I happen to think they’re one of the more important and creative rock bands of the last twenty years.

Just one of the many many wonderful things about Ween is the ambiguity inherent in “The HIV Song,” whose only two words are “HIV” and “AIDS” – no commentary or context whatsoever (unless you count the whimsically insane calliope music that accompanies those half-sung, half-spoken words). What’s great about this song is that by saying almost nothing, Gene and Dean open up the text tremendously, thus generating quite a lot of controversy, none of which, really, can be made to stick. The excerpt from the book does a very nice job of addressing this issue, and is well worth reading.

Long live the Boognish.