Baby, You're The Right Kind Of Wrong

Pop Music, Cinema & Other Holes

published in Photofile No.66, Sydney, 2002
Kylie Minogue, 2002; Madonna - Steven Meisel photo from Sex (1992)

The hole that is Kylie is a deep one. A de-interiorized vessel, her hole encapsulates her bony frame, shoots up through her fish-like facial contours, and wraps itself around the fag-hag accruements which posit her as a feminized revisioning of the ultra-macho mustachioed porno aesthetic. She is a hole due to the power of her image gravity. She sucks in gays shifting their gaze from football players to shopping-mall twinks of which Kylie is a 'femasculation'. She sucks in young girls becoming moist to the neutered Tinkerbell prancing of her amateur-hour stage show. She sucks in young boys wavering between the grown impotency of Pepsi-Max extremism and the infertility of plain Pepsi and her lure to be ingested. She sucks in the anti-Popsters who delight in denigrating Kylie and thrusting their technological probes into the guts of her digitized body, generating anti-remixes which carve her Chipmunk tones into radicalized MP3s. And she sucks in the bourgeois apologia who 'write on' Kylie and who do 'work' about her, pathetically crowning 'our Kylie' as an Australian icon so as to repress the cultural vacuousness that is Australia as seen by the rest of the world.

For Kylie is nothing but negative space; nothing but the imagined collision of your neurotic and unfounded projections of image, pop, music, industry, style. In this sense, her corpus is quintessentially pop - but only within specifically defined channels of production, exchange and consumption (ie. Pop Music). You are deluded in your readings of this flimsy Shroud of Ramsey Street, projecting your misguided significance well beyond the boundaries and off the channels which position and mobilize Kylie within Pop Music. Simply, you are wrong in thinking Kylie is cool because she 'ironically exploits herself', as if she is Cindy Sherman come to life on a Top Of The Pops, or Jeff Koons in drag on MTV. Kylie the spokesthing and songsterizer, the Kylie marketing machine, the Kylie fanbase, the dumbarse media who accord Kylie media space, and the intelligentsia who 'posit' Kylie are all conjoined by their confusion between Pop Music and pop culture. For Kylie is not pop culture, but rather a sign of the absolute divide between Pop Music and pop culture.

Where the likes of Camilia Paglia lioness-ized Madonna as an erectile node of power - one who wielded managerial power and creative control through her nipples and from her navel - the skintellectuals who fawn over Kylie contribute to the totally bankrupt state which has rendered Woman as hole. While 'uses' of Kylie desperately strike flip, limp, camp postures of knowingness, every accounting of Madonna led to further divides, valleys and ridges in the mapping of sexual politics. Ten years later, Madonna's Sex book (1992) remains as misunderstood as websites run by women exchanging and exhibiting tips on squirting. To this day - no matter how embarrassing aspects of Madonna's career may appear according to your taste and sense - Madonna never was and never is akin to the many Madonnarines (Taylor Dane, Debbie Gibson, Kylie, Britney Spears, et al) manufactured by industrial alchemists with vested interests in the figurining of Woman. Madonna is part of a different pop genetic trajectory that links Carole King, Barbara Streisand, Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton, Bette Midler, Kate Bush, Chrissy Hinde, Debbie Harry, Annie Lennox, Tori Amos, Aimee Mann - women who have sporadically or consistently exercised career options without any sense of 'ironic self-exploitation' and with an openly pragmatic sense of objectification, commodification and incorporation.

While aspects of the meta-sexuality momentarily induced in considerations of the hole that is Kylie seem appealing, the perversity of such readings cannot be overly celebrated in the ugly sociological light that allows Woman to ultimately remain a bi-sexed drag doll for dry-humping in the name of art, culture and industry. My mere and solitary intellectualization of these schisms does little to enlighten a bankrupt intelligentsia who claim they 'know' Pop. Instead, I will write on the depth of your unknowing of Pop as you stand at that invisible line which separates pop culture from Pop Music. Look in the direction where everyone's heads are turned and you will see how hip they feel in rewriting the past quarter century of Pop as an obese corpus of camp classicism. But Pop is mostly defined by where it is - not what it is. Look the other way and you will see apparitions incongruously located within the cinema: the ultimate parent-image-machine most unlikely to project any veracity in its fumbled and thwarted renderings of pop, rock, disco, rap, metal and techno ...

Rock Star (2001); Almost Famous (2000)

Although it was originally titled Metal God, Stephen Hereck's Rock Star (2001) ages itself through its own act of naming. What could be dumber and more dated than the very concept of a 'rock star'? David Bowie's pseudo-ego in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars (1972) had treated the 'rock star' as the ultimate accessory of excess: a ripe and overfed blob primed for his Glam make-over. By his follow up album, Aladdin Sane (1973), the ashes had been well and truly stoked into a morbid paste of schizophrenic method-acting which sign-posted the way in which neurotic and debilitating realities would thrive like a virus on the bright and shiny surface of all labelled Pop for the forthcoming few decades. Taking into account such frissons in rock and pop history, Rock Star should have had some savvy in casting Mark Wahlberg - ex leader of Marky Mark and The Funky Bunch, a humanized version of Lancelot Link and the Evolution Revolution. (Think about it.)

The film's script by John Stockwell liberally exploits the thrice-returned postmodernism of Judas Priest's real-life events wherein their lead singer Rob Halford was replaced by Ripper Owens, lead singer of a Judas Priest tribute band. But little known is that the antics of Owens living out his dream of 'becoming' Judas Priest's lead singer were and are less incendiary: he likes playing golf and visiting his mum. Hollywood today is an era which projects everyone as members of a kick-arse rock band: cyber rebels like those in The Matrix; bank robbers like those in Swordfish; forensic scientists like those in CSI. No wonder the Hollywood version of the exploits of a metal band like Judas Priest would amplify Hammer Of The Gods-style debauchery and mute the social reality of this same band having been charged in the American Supreme Court in 1991 for using backwards masking that led to the failed suicide pact of two teens. Maybe this is why everyone loves Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap (1995). Like the pumped-up Rock-ness squeezed out of Rock Star, it pressurizes parody out of a musical culture already pre-labelled with mockery and ridicule, thereby saving you from trying to figure out whether Rock - metal, especially - is something other than the charades you presume it to be.

Yet a simple factor contributes to the lack of cultural location and attuned identity which smears Rock Star: its impulse to narrate and describe is born of an external perspective. Two other films released around the same time evidence ways in which an internal perspective more accurately contextualizes the precise 'Otherness' of Rock to which the cinema has been fatally attracted but which it fatefully cannot encompass. Allison Anders & Kurt Voss' Sugar Town (1999) and Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (2000) provide interesting bookends to this dilemma of figuring and presenting Rock in cinematic form. Both films are in fact not films 'about' Rock, but portions of Rock which reside in film form. This reversal is the result of life experiences guiding the writing, direction and performance of the theatrics which enliven the audiovisual screen. Cameron Crowe's memoirs of breaking into the world of Rolling Stone journalism shape Almost Famous, and they are aided by his partner Cassandra Wilson (of Heart) writing an idyllic rock-tinged score and ex-idol Peter Frampton serving as technical advisor for the actors' performances. Sugar Town's collective therapeutic consciousness-streaming of ex-members of Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, Roseanne Arquette, John Doe and others transforms the film into an Altmanesque-study of the rock industry of which Altman himself would appear unlikely to produce. Consequently, both films are also marked by their non-judgmental, endearing nature and their eschewing of Wonder Years/Doogie Howser/Secret Life Of Us faux-na've monologues.

Rock - for those who know it well - is a glorious realm of fuck-ups, has-beens, and gone-wrongs. The tragedy of the most moronic rock star is that he or she will probably have a life more vital than any of us who deride his or her delusion. This is a dramatic theme central to a growing clutch of films which grant pathos to the disreputable and acceptance for the disregarded: from Ulli Grosbard's overlooked Georgia (1995) to Brian Gibson's warmly caricatured Still Crazy (1998) to Todd Haynes' deliriously unclassifiable Velvet Goldmine (1998) to Sugar Town (1999) and Almost Famous to Alison Anders' most recent and unsettling film Things Beneath The Sun (2002). Rock narratives are lent better to elegiac reveries than high octane propulsions typical of the wannabes, greenhorns and cowboys who ride cinema as a white horse of dreamlike potential. Reality check: few directors make their second movies these days, spending years withering in hope of that next 'cutting edge' project, while at least an ultra-saccharine boy band will get to release a second album before they spiral into drugs. One-hit-wonders can be reborn by a film soundtrack, while one-hit-directors die hard.

Sugar Town (1999); Glitter (2001)

There is probably a great fuck-up story deep within multi-hit-wonder Mariah Carey despite her mind-boggling commercial success. It is a story likely to contain more dramatic swirls of bodily objectification, sexual manipulation, feminine application and psychological destabilization than those struggling to air themselves in the autobiographies of Tina Turner and Ronnie Spector. Unfortunately, Yondie Curtis-Hall's Glitter (2001) is not that story - all the more unfortunate as the film loosely fictionalizes Mariah Carey's own rise to fame. Or, it salaciously blurs all the fictionalized possibilities which thicken her own press mythologies and dreamgirl videoclip narratives. Glitter is like a gigantic animated skeleton, draped in kilometres of chiffon, formed into a gargantuan puppet of oral femininity prancing on massive hollow stages. The film's recreation, restaging and redressing of a variety of nightclubs and venues accentuates this bloated emptiness as a thousand and one extras are pumped into the scene. This endlessly Panaglided multitude is there less for scenographic import than to reinforce the magnitude of Mariah Carey's record sales. She is continually posed as a shining star - a miniscule tab of glitter - dazzling through the density of crowd, noise, hustle and bustle. She is the One whose seven octave range allows her to soar and rub shoulders with Elvis for most No.1s on the Billboard charts. Accordingly, Glitter bottoms-out as if it had been typed-up by Billboard statisticians rather than audiovisualized by heady Mariah fans. Her auratic stardom is quelled within a narrative that tracks her journey to her own super nova, while the hyper-utopia expelled in her video clips and within the grain of her angelic warbling is flattened by Hollywood's lumpen narrative mechanics (also known as 'scriptwriting' in case you want to do a course in it).

In one sense, Glitter is the girlie wish-upon-a-star equivalent to Rock Star's cock-grabbing feel-hard fantasy. A key difference, though, is that Mariah's status was too big to be contained within cinema. Mark Wahlberg's pop background is in fact more manufactured than anything of Mariah Carey's, typing him as an Archie/Monkee ripe for donning a huge prosthetic cock in Boogie Nights. Mariah possesses her voice, her own written material, and (for a while) the head of Columbia Records. Mariah's stage of power resides in the maintenance of her vocal grain, her physical stature and her photographic allure; and that stage exists in the phonographic and the televisual. The cinema - with its literalization of mythological tropes - cannot contain such an alliteral and spectacular unadulteration of audiovisuality, the type of which governs photo shoots, videos clips and concert extravaganzas. Glitter was arguably doomed to fail in this regard.

Everything that Glitter isn't can be found in Josie & The Pussycats (2001), cowritten/co-directed by Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan. The film's deliberate cooler-than-you stance lies in its decision to 'make real' a 70s cartoon pop band who didn't even release records like The Archies. The original Hana-Barbera TV cartoon series Josie & The Pussycats (1970-72) was part of a slew of kiddie animated series founded upon the rarely-questioned assumption that all pop music was identical in its sugar-coated noise and its speedily manufactured image (a majorly held American view in the face of the Beatles' 'invasion' of the US charts in the mid 60s). Hence, the plots rarely included anything about pop music culture or even the recording industry. Hana-Barbera's limited animation couldn't even show a wide-shot of a crowd moving as to do so would have required too much time and labor. This only reinforced the decrepit notion that pop audiences are so mindless in their consumption of pop music that they don't even need to be identified. In many respects, Hana-Barbera's view of pop music at the end of the 60s remains cinema's view of pop music today: an enterprise where generalization and approximation is justified and deemed appropriate due to the literary/dramatic insignificance of pop music within the grand designs of a film's 'story'.

The Josie & The Pussycats film mocks cinema's churlish, outdated and chauvinistic reduction of pop music by transforming its 'story' into a scathing view not of pop music, but of how pop music is perceived by those who nothing about it. In both fine and broad strokes, so much is pilloried and celebrated in the film's teenaged delirium: subliminal messages, evil record company corporations, product placement, band management, photo shoot stylists, record chain stores, alt.vs.pop battles, the dumb manipulated masses, and mega-svenghali hypesters with their finger on the pulse of 'today's generation'. The film is simultaneously an A&R department's wetdream and a rock journalist's nightmare as it collides the blunt reality of 'music marketing' with the altruistic aims of 'music making', making it a gem of perception in a mire of rock/pop cinema.

Josie & The Pussycats (2001); Coyote Ugly (2000)

David McNally's Coyote Ugly (2000) is a similarly sharp yet thoroughly dismissed film. On the surface, again, it appears as bereft of accuracy and acumen as most of the films mentioned here - films you'll never be able to convince your friends to hire out at the video store for a night's viewing. Yet, again, at the deeper level of its pop mechanisms, this film uncovers a terrain of rock/pop cinema deserving of scrutiny. But first, let's hit the surface. In the tradition of the much-maligned Madonnaesque Showgirls (directed by Paul Verhoven, 1995), Coyote Ugly uses dancing Woman as the site for its contentious display of power. In this case, her stage is the narrow oak bar at Coyote upon which she gyrates, titillates and ignites (literally) her pelvic power. The barely submerged sexual symbolism is noteworthy in these dry times when only black R&B video clips press sexuality into the viewer's thighs. At the Coyote bar, hoards of men behave like pigs in a trough guzzling the urinal nectar of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam in a ritualistic display of pre-cumming as they suck and swallow anything within reach. (Their impotency is culturally zeroed by the fist-throwing AM gold songs which get them rocking: ZZ Top, Charlie Daniels Band, INXS.) Also reminiscent of Showgirls is Coyote Ugly's positioning of Woman as a Kali-like goddess: a Venus deMilo with 10 arms and 20 cocks, defying gravity and scale in a statuesque erection of libido aflamed.

The hold-onto-your-dream story of Coyote Ugly attaches itself to 'Jersey': a shy singer-songwriter who 'finds herself' by becoming one of the hot Coyote barmaids. Scenes of her writing her songs are unintentionally amusing (like the inspirational moments in the dance equivalent of this film, Thomas Carter's Save The Last Dance For Me, 2001), peaking with her hearing 'hip hop' coming from a 'tenement" (which looks like Soho apartment block) and using that to infuse her music with 'urban energy'. But despite these easy-to-bag mistakes, a certain logic links together the songs Jersey composes. All songs are written by Dianne Warren, who in the last 20 years has written AOR, AC and Pop songs for (among others) Tina Turner, Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Patti LaBelle, Gloria Estefan, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Reba McEntire, Whitney Houston, Faith Hill, Celine Dion, Mary J. Blige and LeAnn Rimes. At a meta-narrative level, Jersey is the voice of Woman that joins the body of Woman figured throughout Coyote Ugly's tango with sexual politics, positing someone like Dianne Warren as the reality of what Pop Music is today: a quietly waged gender battle behind invisible lines and within inaudible channels of control.

But there's more. The voice of the character Jersey (acted by Piper Perabo) becomes the voice of LeAnn Rimes when Jersey sings. On set, Perabo performed Warren's songs, leaving Rimes to post dub Perabo singing on the screen, while Rimes' voice is used in the songs released on the soundtrack CD. Then at the end of the film, LeAnn Rimes appears as a 'new' Coyote girl auditioning for a job at the bar, singing her own hit song which - in the film's plot - has become a hit penned by the character Jersey. But wait - there's more. The official video clip promoting the film is for the same Warren-penned song "Can't Fight The Moonlight" (US No.1) sung by LeAnn Rimes. The clip has her performing the song on the Coyote bar set, and as per market synergism, intercuts shots from the film featuring Perabo - but there is not a single frame of Perabo with her mouth open in case it is presumed that she is the actual singer of the song. The video clip is thus typical of the peculiar anxiety which occurs when Pop Music and cinema collide and eat into each other in a series of hyper-corrosive vibrations.

Unlike the plastering of Kylie's singular hole across bus AdShells, supermarket glossies, trams, street hoarding posters, hi-rotation TV ads and ring tones, Coyote Ugly's triumvirate whole is imperceptibly dissolved into the kinetic fractal noise of cinema's audiovisual surface. In other words, Kylie's 'universe' behaves in a mode of spectacularism presumed the province of cinema and is thus more narrated than broadcast, whereas Coyote Ugly masquerades as a film when in fact it is the nature of Pop Music today: rooted in fakeness, grounded by multiplicity, and oriented by allusion. Far from suffering any crisis of mimesis, plausibility or truth, Perabo/Rimes/Warren chime a celebration of this in the film's crowd-pleaser: Baby You're The Right Kind Of Wrong.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.