Pop Music Where? Part 2

Fleshy Semiotics

published in Virgin Press No.21, Melbourne, 1982

A long, long time ago I vaguely remember seeing a picture of a female body builder in the Melbourne "Sun". It was just that a photograph, uncropped, with a few lines of caption underneath that served only to reinstate the photograph as a depiction of some sort of social oddity, a physical abnormality, a human novelty. Morning newspapers like the Melbourne "Sun" are often largely made up of this type of photographic tableaux, wrenched from their peculiar settings and thrust in your face in the morning where and when you encounter them as "Other" (the weird, the strange, the taboo, the curious, the threatening, the laughable, etc.) in a bleary eyed state over your breakfast or while you commute to school or work.

The concept or reality of a female body builder, in its "weirdness", presents us with a compounded fracture in the construction and maintenance of our everyday life. Not merely a freak ("That's Incredible") a novelty ("The Sun") a joke ("The Benny Hill Show") or an innovation ("Wide World Of Sports"), but a ragged tear in the heavily textured fabric of our society, cutting across a number of social codes. The image of the female body builder is a vessel of ambiguity, a physical amphibian, a cultural hermaphrodite - not simply because of the various transgressions that the body itself contains, but more so because of the uncanny "normality" that such a body can carry, i.e. a woman involved in a competitive exhibitive sport; a woman in tune with the fundamental physiological nature of her being; a woman whose body is a creative tool of beauty; a woman who can be just an capable of and applicable to any activity that men are involved in. The compounding of this fracture, this rupture, is actually caused not by transgression as such, but by its escaping the stain of taboo through exhibiting itself as some sort of threat in stasis, suspending its potential. The poetry of physique becomes the metaphor of transgression as the female body builder flaunts it (the body as object) while the transsexual (for example) does it (the body as act).

But I was in my early teens when I first saw that photograph and none of the above thoughts entered my head. Sometime later, I saw a similar photograph stuck up on a notice board in an office where a friend worked. Later still, a similar photo appeared in "Art & Text", and inbetween these instances I would come across Body Building magazines in newsagents, art and photographic journals at friends' places, and news or sports items on television. And right up until now (even as I'm half way through writing this article I come across the October 182 issue of "Life" which features a cover story on this very subject) this photographic image of a female body builder, this curio of popular culture, still seems to be of the same highly polished surface of "Other" that triggered my initial response of curiosity, amazement and amusement when I first saw this image some ten years ago. The image, society, and myself (as subject ) are bound together in a calm yet solid configuration of exposition and reaction; each determining one another, threatening one another, mirroring one another.

In October this year I found myself attending the 1982 National Body Building Championships, held at the Cronulla Sutherlands Leagues Club (situated on the beach that provided the location for the "Puberty Blues" novel) and - you guessed it - there were female body builders struttin' their stuff. However, within this competition, this peculiar environment untainted by "Other ness", female body builders were only part of a whole range of categories of body building, incorporating youths, amateurs, professionals, juniors, seniors, men, women, and couples. It was like a family picnic smorgasbord on Muscle Beach. Here, the oddity of the female body builder was somewhat nullified, not only because of a female body builder being part of a homogenous family of the sport, but because the environment of this social spectacle exuded an air of sexual and social ambiguity, an atmosphere of cultural displacement and misplacement where stereotypical figures, patterns of behaviour and codes of entertainment were severed from their "normal" contextual functionings. This was a place that would make "That's Incredible" irrelevant, "The Sun" boring, "The Benny Hill Show" humourless, and "Wide World Of Sports" outdated. Some relative descriptive impressions follow :

After queuing for about half an hour (it was packed) I stood up with everyone else while they played (on cassette) "Advance Australia Fair", an experience which set the tone for a uniquely uncomfortable evening. From hearing stray comments all over the place it appeared as though it was the girls who dragged the boys along to this event not to mention that the boys were as enthusiastically critical of the men's bodies as they were of the women's bodies. And I'm almost certain that all the "slinky spunky women" that paraded between the bar and their tables got their fashion hints not from "Vogue", "Mode", "Women's Weekly" or "Dolly", but from "Playboy". It was no wonder that I found the environment extremely confusing although I appeared to be the only person there who found it that way. Undoubtedly, the whole event was - for performers and audience - a celebration of one's physical image, of one's body. It was a communal event that I was not really a part of. And this is all happening before the curtain gets raised.

So - the curtain gets raised and an endless stream of bodies starts. A continual blur of flesh in haphazard shapes and sizes and configurations ; a swarm of muscle, a storm of tissue. But wait a minute - do my ears deceive me ? Is that Sergio Leone's "Once Upon A Time In The West"? Giorgio Moroder's "Midnight Express"? Strauss' "Sprach Zarathustra"? The themes from "Exodus", "Star Wars" and "Superman"? Pete Townsend's "Pinball Wizard"? Deodato's "Theme From 2001"? My ears certainly weren't deceiving me but my headache was certainly getting worse. My problem was not simply in trying to rationalize the various tensions, ambiguities, pulses and effects that circumscribed this social event (how everyone appeared to be inter reacting and how I related myself to such a perspective). I was more overcome by the songs that were used as musical backdrops to theatrically generate a mood appropriate to an aesthetically contrived display of "physical beauty". The songs themselves obviously performed this intended function, yet their usage in this context of body building sprouted a strangely self-contained branch in the mythological sprawl of these songs. In reference to popular culture, our accounting of, for example, Sergio Leone's music ( as either generic style, cultural influence, harmonic construction or auteur formulation ) would be lacking if we did not include such disparate elements as Spaghetti Westerns, Adam & The Ants, 20th Century Avant Garde Music and Body Building Contests.

But before we can go further, we must surrender ourselves to the realization that cultural analyses are merely food for a never ending hunger that constitutes culture as being the all consuming machine of obesity that it is. We can theorize aspects, effects, elements, layers, components, but whilst we theorize, they are ceaselessly mutating, feeding off not only one another's movement but through our attempts to hold them still. Today, I say that (for example) pop music is this or that ; tomorrow I have to change in someway what I had said. Popular culture digests my circulating hypotheses and viewpoints leaving me to stomach their contradictions as husks of dead protein.

I could feel a certain appropriateness with the joining of most of the selected music with the spectacle of body building, yet the joining was not totally smooth. Another fracture was struck, this time in the fusion of cultural elements (song and sport ) as well as in the apparent lack of general recognition of any sort of fracturing existing. I viewed the situation as "weird" while everyone else was simply watching the body building oblivious to the multitude of cultural misplacements that seemed to be occurring. The effect of these physical/musical vignettes, these mutant texts, was subsumed by the primacy of their function. This time the "Other" was being replayed onto me. Still it remains that Leone, Moroder, Strauss, Townsend and Deodato would not likely have envisaged themselves as belonging to a group that could provide music appropriate to the sport of body building. On top of this, most of the songs or music pieces used were wrenched from existing fictional constructs (film scores and themes; classical symphonies; rock operas; pop songs) all of which were founded on individual status and cultural identity. Thus, I'm watching muscles being flexed, hearing voices around me giving sexually implicative commentaries on the aesthetic and critical worth of said flesh, and thinking of scenes from films, record covers, magazine interviews - anything and everything from the mythological lucky dip that forms the basis for the reading of popular culture. A theoretical headache engulfs me as everyone and everything talks to me at once.

What we have here is a disjuncture in readings, an 'unconnection' of interpretations. Even though I might be according the event of the songs' usage their total breadth and depth, it is more likely that only one or some of their many skins is needed for application and generation within any one cultural instance. Consider the process of selection, usage and interpretation involved in the coupling of a given piece of pop music with a display of body building (a process that includes body-builders, song and audience). It seems obvious that no dogma of purity is revered here at all: the song is utilized not as an iconographical whole, as a textual object per se, but as a textual element, a few layers of tissue from the body of the text. The process of selection involves then not one text against another text, but - more specifically - some textual tissue against other textual tissue. The process of interpretation is then hinged on the joining of that tissue (the specifically required theatrical effects from "within" the selected song) with the effect of the display of body building, so that the actual body-building display locates, points out and surfaces the required level or part of the song that is deemed relevant to the intention of the display. Thus, "Pinball Wizard" might superficially have nothing to do with the flexing and posturing of muscle in a competitive sports context, yet a conversable exchange exists as the former augments the latter and the latter contextualizes the former. Their specific meanings are gauged and determined not by the broader parameters of Culture, Mythology or History but precisely by one another.

After seeing the 1982 National Body Building Championships I remembered being told of the "unconventional" selection of music that strippers currently employ in their striptease acts. Once back in Melbourne I visited "The Barrell" cinema in Swanston St. (a main street in the city) wherein I consumed the one hour lunch time strip show, two porn movies and three solo strip teases. (The city strip shows in Melbourne are comparatively lacking in the glittering auratic quality and recognition of them being a form of entertainment based on notions of art or craft than, say, Kings Cross or similarly famous resorts of vice. The strip shows I am talking about do not advertise such finesse or style, but exist as a less glamourous form of cultural exchange.)

Here was another confusing environment, another experience that gave me a headache. There is, however, a very apt way of describing the atmosphere at "The Barrell", although this description will probably only have meaning and relevance to the (mythical?) "male" reader. For what its worth, it was like being in a public toilet where you're urinating with all these other men, connected by your sex (though not necessarily your sexuality), no one saying anything, everyone almost denying their presence. The tone of the afternoon (like the men's toilet) was extremely deadened, devoid of any changes in tempo or surges of energy. There I was with a room full of other men ranging from around 20 to around 60, all of us in silence, fixated on our involvement with the proceedings. I'm not sure whether, again, I might have been the odd one out at this particular social gathering (at times the analyst is ironically and unromantically the lost soul of culture) but for sure the afternoon had a marked absence of the bawdy rowdy bravado and participation that one generally associates with strip clubs. "The Barrell" seemed to transmute sexual titillation and gratification into an almost pleasureless perfunctory activity, a banal social rite. But aside from what might be dubious subjective impressions and presumptuous sociological observations, the fact remains that the stripteases were tedious while the porn movies were cop-outs. Both were quite pathetic at generating any fundamental effect at all, and amounted to a fairly unceremonious facade, an event of flatness that held very little on its strained surface.

Strangely enough, my real pleasure was got from the pop music used for the stripteases. Songs used at "The Barrell" (and reportedly at "The Shaft Sinema" and the "Silver Screen Art Cinema") were Manhattan Transfer's "Chanson D'Amour"; Lipsync's "Funky Town" the theme from "Endless Love"; Wings' ''Let Me Roll It To You"; Flying Lizards' "Money; Rick James' "Super Freak"; Kelly Marie's "My Heart Beats Like A Drum"; Kim heart's "Love At First Sight". (The real and the imaginable start to blur when one realizes that virtually any pop song might and could be used in such ways.) Like the Body Building Championships, there was obviously no real novelty at play in the usage of such music, as their usage defined and was defined by a new context - that of their very usage. It's a dumb fix of irony that is at work here, namely that one might identify and recognize elements being used (pop songs and their histories) but when one exercises that recognition one is actually negating the uniqueness and specificity in question.

Another fracture is thus struck: I recall (or I am recalled to) an image of the strip tease, of the theatrical ritual of strategic titillation. It is an event of stylization ,of signifying all that goes with the image - the standardized burlesqued music, big and bold in its gaudy brass arrangement; the tacky cardboard chic regalia that poses as a glittering guardian of costumery for the soon-to-be-revealed body; the stage settings that in their garish bombardment of the stripper serve to flatten out her body, to pictorialize her as an illustration, a reinstatement of her figure as the image of body, the trigger for arousal. All these conventions of style and presentation each present themselves as a cloak of anonymity, devoid of any specific personality, identity or status - music, costume, stage and gesture conglomerately exist in terms of the loudness of their volume. For sure, this is a solid image that exists and proliferates now - yet where was that image at "The Barrell" ? The fracture, the contradiction, exists in that we have a cultural image that appears to not exist in the very culture that gives it its image. Anonymity was absent at "The Barrell". The strip teases were pregnant with cultural specificity - a girl dressed in an Olivia Newton John disco leotard stripped to the Flying Lizards' "Money" against a back drop of Comalco aluminium foil and 60's psychedelic light and slide effects, using a long Mae West-type feather as a theatrical aid to deadpan disco dancing and tired sexual gestures. What might have used to have been something as concrete as a "cultural image" is, for now, a cultural montage, an historical multiple, a textual Freak.

More so than the Body Building Championships, "The Barrell" strip shows are definitely connected to an extant image of its environment as a spectacle. The selection of music utilized in the Body Building Championships was surprising despite my having no expectations at all as to what would happen on that night. The music of the strip shows, however, went against the grain of my expectations, tenuously stretching the viability of whatever modes of convention foregrounded such an event, causing erosion in whatever theorization or rationalization that served to fragilely hold strip shows in their place in popular culture. Inasmuch as there were fundamental differences in operation at each of these events, what was said about the songs in the Body Building Championships could be said for "The Barrell'' strip shows - the former gleaned musical slivers that conveyed a sense of proud being, an aura of perfection and a feeling of triumph; the latter appropriated music that implied a a vague presence of sexuality, either lyrically or musically.

Whereas the first installment of these "Pop Music there ?" articles concentrated on what was essentially the interpretation of popular culture, this second installment has concentrated on (examples of) the usage of popular culture. Furthermore, the conclusion, if any, would be that this usage is of a very specific type, a type conditioned by popular culture (a state of currency) in that the rigidity of modes such as intention and selection is exploded into a frenzied sprawl, each and every decision founding a new and particular qualification for action and effect, essentially unable to be held against social or cultural theory. Why Sergio Leone? Why ''Money''? The catch is that popular culture never hears those questions, never finds answers. All we have left is the historical markings of Culture (what else is "Culture"?) - a Grand Canyon of unanswered questions. I pause here to suggest that you might follow the markings and undertake an expedition to some body building displays and strip clubs.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.