Weekly Dance Break: Special Affair (Zach Lattimore and Candace Brown choreography x The Internet)

SydThaKyd’s silky voice was made for choreo duets. Here, hip hop dancers put an intimate spin on the seductive lyrics of “Special Affair” by The Internet. Sit back, relax, take it in.

 

Big Sound Saturdays: ‘Taint No Sin to Take Off Your Skin! (Guest Post)

Guest post! All the ladies in the club in the pre-war decades.

Follow Jennie on Twitter @little_wow

The sordid secrets of the pop stars of the 1920s and 1930s hold a fascination that far outstrips any scandal Kanye could conjure. From Ruth Etting, whose mobster boyfriend shot her pianist and lover, to Libby Holman, whose extravagantly wealthy husband conveniently disappeared on a boating trip in 1932, tabloid queens, dulcet voices, and songs both classic and forgotten dominated the radio waves and records of the 1920s and 1930s.

Sarah Bernhardt paved the way for women to behave badly at the turn of the century, but it wasn’t until the rise of mass entertainment in the 1920s that women found their way as public celebrities. Many of the women on this mix were constantly scrutinized in public and private, their lives intersecting with famous names, drinking and partying through their most vital decades. Still others are greats whose limited recording output or race meant their powerful voices are frequently forgotten. For me, listening to most of these songs makes me ask, like Lee Wiley on the Fats Waller recording of the Gershwin hit, “How long has this been going on?”

The mix begins with an early example of public trolling: the short message that Max Fleischer sent to Helen Kane after she unsuccessfully sued him for infringement in 1932.  It bears the question: was Helen Kane the true “boop boop be doo girl” or was it “Baby Esther,” a black singer popular at the Cotton Club? Baby Esther’s voice may be lost to time, but Kane’s “I Wanna Be Loved by You” remains a perennial classic. The next few tracks travel through the radio pop of the 1920s and 1930s: hitmakers like “America’s Sweetheart of Song” Ruth Etting, “The Personality Girl” Annette Hanshaw, the jazz singer Lee Wiley, and the tragic and beautiful Lee Morse dueled for top plays for almost two decades.

Next up are a few oddities, first from Greta Keller, whose husband was mysteriously murdered in 1943, possibly following an affair with Howard Hughes. Marlene Dietrich copied Keller’s unique style, and while she never achieved wide popular appeal, she remains the First Lady of Viennese Chanson. Zarah Leander may have been Hitler’s favorite singer, but that didn’t stop her from recording a confused version of “Bei Mir Bist du Schön,” possibly most recorded Yiddish song of all time. Rounding out these jazzy ladies are Minnie and Claire Bagelman, otherwise known as the Barry Sisters. They began their recording career in the late 1930s, and this rare Yiddish version of “Makin’ Whoopee” is a charmer.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most rare, most pioneering, and often most forgotten women on this mix are the black blues singers of the 1920s. While Clarence Williams’s “Cake Walkin’ Babies from Home” may be a standard, its brilliant singer Eva Taylor is often overlooked by jazz lovers. Mamie Smith isn’t related to the more famous Bessie Smith, but her version of “Crazy Blues” was the first blues hit in 1920.  These racy, often risqué tunes include the powerhouse Sippie Wallace, the rare and vital Texas blues singer Mary Dixon, and Lucille Bogan’s apocryphal alternate (and filthy) take of “Shave ‘em Dry.”

Making this mix proved to me, more than anything, the fleetingness of the hit machine. While all these women were profoundly talented and most found acclaim in their time, many of these records aren’t usually listed among the greats. Some of them died young, like the influential Clara Smith, best friend of Bessie and lover of Josephine Baker. Others faded into obscurity like Annette Hanshaw, who retired from show business in 1935, and still others like Sippie Wallace, who was nominated for a Grammy Award at 85, continued to record past their golden age. 

Still, Mildred Bailey charted hits eighteen times, Lee Wiley launched the concept of the songbook, and the alcoholic Lee Morse was one of the most famous women of her time. They were all uncompromising and strong women with lives marked by tragedy, diverse sexual politics, and scandalous love lives. I’ll quote Bea Foote in her jazzy and flirty “Try and Get it” to try and explain why they’re not household names: “I’ve got something that can’t be had/But try and get it.”

These women didn’t hide their talent, but these songs are pearls that need to be discovered, which is a difficult metaphor for a 21st Century feminist, and one that’s still too common for women. These recordings are surprising, funny, and often shockingly ahead of their time. When Bette Midler recorded Holman’s hit “Am I Blue?” in the 1970s, she sang it almost note for note, but Holman’s voice has a deep drama that lives on in the original.

Annette Hanshaw ended all her songs with a peppy “That’s all!” before Porky Pig was a twinkle in Mel Blanc’s eye, so that’s where I ended this mix. Say goodnight, Gracie. (Goodnight, Gracie!)

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What is Gender? A Look at “The Danish Girl” and “Macbeth”

Written by I.C.

Two of this winter’s most absorbing movies emphasize the centrality of gender identity in thought-provoking ways.  The topic is more obviously central to The Danish Girl, the story of Lili Elbe (formerly Einar Wegener), the first known person to undergo sex reassignment surgery, and her wife, Gerda Wegener.  Both were painters in 1920s Copenhagen.  Oscar buzz for Eddie Redmayne as Lili was a given, due to the challenging nature of the role and his Best Actor win last year for another radical physical transformation in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. And he is indeed up for Best Actor for The Danish Girl.  Einar first tries on women’s clothing in order to help Gerda finish a painting when the model is unavailable.  But the act of donning female attire brings to life something latent within him, and Lili is born. Lili navigates the world at first awkwardly, then with increasing grace and confidence.  Even as those who knew Einar remain baffled, and doctors throw out diagnoses ranging from homosexuality to schizophrenia, Lili becomes increasingly certain that she has found her true identity, and is willing to endure anything to have an exterior that matches who she feels she is.

danishgirlmov
Image via Twitter @danishgirlmov

As good as Redmayne is in the role, critics have also been at least as impressed by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as Gerda.  2015 was Vikander’s year.  I loved her performances in the 2012 Danish film A Royal Affair and in a small part in that year’s Anna Karenina; in 2015 she gave me chills with her haunting performance as a conscious robot in Ex Machina and broke my heart as WWI-era pacifist and feminist Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth.  In The Danish Girl her radiant performance, for which she has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, turns the movie into not only the story of Lili but the story of an extraordinary marriage.  Gerda begins as a free-thinking, somewhat bohemian painter, married to a fellow painter whose work gets more acclaim.  As Einar becomes Lili, Gerda loses a husband but gains a muse: her paintings of Lili become hits in the art world.  Her simultaneous confusion, frustration, and devotion to the person she loves are beautifully portrayed.  When Einar tells a doctor that he believes he is a woman inside, and Gerda says, “And I believe it too,” it’s a powerful moment of alliance.

The film also subtly suggests that the Wegener’s love was never confined by conventional gender roles in any case: while Einar was sexually attracted to Gerda, Gerda was always the bold one, and when they first met she took the romantic initiative with the shy Einar. In portraying their relationship, the film carefully balances a recognition of sexual fluidity and the constructed or performative nature of gender with an emphasis on the individual right to claim what one feels to be one’s essential gender identity.

***

On the surface, The Danish Girl, a tasteful biopic, would seem to have little in common with a visually arresting and brutal Shakespeare adaptation.  Yet they address similar issues.  In the first scene in which Lady Macbeth appears in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, she is praying to the powers of darkness for exactly the thing that causes Lili so much pain: a disjunction in gender between her body and spirit.  She wishes for a man’s spirit in her woman’s body, as her battle-hardened culture has led her to equate masculinity with the ruthlessness she deems necessary to achieve her ambitions:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse….

Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! (Act I, scene v).

 

She is soon taunting her husband with lack of manliness for his qualms about murdering King Duncan; at this point, he has a much more morally grounded view of masculinity, saying: “I dare do all that may become a man; /Who dares do more is none” (Act I, scene vii).  In other words, to do something so evil as murdering his king would be “unbecoming” to a man, and in fact make him less of one.  He recognizes a masculine ideal in Banquo, who “hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour/ To act in safety” (Act III scene i).

But his wife continues to insist that manliness involves hard-heartedness and violence without remorse; she says:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. …
(Act I, scene vii).

She is unprepared, however, for how fully her husband will ultimately embrace this toxic view of masculinity. As Macbeth’s mind crumbles under the effects of post-traumatic stress, his moral sense also crumbles, and he takes his wife’s idea of the conflation of masculinity with violence further than she ever did.  If before King Duncan’s murder she fears her husband is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” (Act I, scene v) to perform the deed, in later scenes she is dismayed by his ruthlessness. As Michael O’Sullivan’s review in the Washington Post points out, this film’s Macbeth is “far madder than his wife… whose descent into derangement is one of the most tired tropes of the theater.”  Michael Fassbender brilliantly portrays Macbeth’s unraveling, as his moral uncertainty gives way to anguish, and then to ferocity.

As for Lady Macbeth’s own mental deterioration, some might argue that it is due to her inability to shed her womanliness as she had hoped to do. With a silent but crucial opening scene, the movie finds a way to reconcile the text’s emphasis on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s childlessness with Lady Macbeth’s statement that “I have given suck, and know/How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” (Act I, scene vii), and in another pivotal scene, she takes the death of another woman’s children very hard.  It seems to me, however, that it is her humanity rather than her womanhood that she’s unable to shed, and that she is increasingly distressed at her husband’s loss of his.

macbeth
Image via Twitter @macbeth_movie

The emphasis on Macbeth’s increasing inhumanity also makes this film feel more nuanced in its portrayal of his wife, who in this film is no mere scheming temptress.  Marion Cotillard’s subtle performance also helps; I have yet to see this actress in anything in which she is less than sublime, and her work here is no exception.  Her rendition of the “Out, damned spot” speech is spellbinding.  There’s no wringing of her hands in that scene—the camera focuses on her face, and she is seated, quite still, with her hands kept deliberately out of the frame.  Her eyes are fixed on something the viewer only sees as she finishes speaking.  This scene erases any doubt that she is as tragic a figure as her husband, and her tragedy is in large part her embrace of traditionally “masculine” values that have ultimately proved dehumanizing.

Both of these films grapple with questions of gender and identity in a way that feels new and significant.  More generally, they deal with what it means to be an authentic, integrated human being, at home in one’s body (as Lili seeks to be) and in one’s mind (as the Macbeths, after their initial crime, can never be again).

Weekly Dance Break: Bohemian Rhapsody (Ballet version)

In further things you didn’t know you wanted: Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody interpreted as a ballet pas de deux, weirdly compelling and beautiful!

Lana del Rey, Florence and the Machine, and the Performance of Femininity

They thought death was worth it, but I
Have a self to recover, a queen.

-Sylvia Plath, “Stings”

 

Even amidst the buzz surrounding the release of Adele’s 25 this month, I’m still caught up in two other albums released by major female artists this year. Florence and the Machine and Lana Del Rey both (like Adele) released their third major-label albums in 2015. Florence and the Machine’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful and Del Rey’s Honeymoon each mark a sonic departure from the albums that preceded them.  Beyond that, Florence Welch and Lana del Rey are two of my favorite female artists, and listening to these two albums on constant repeat—Florence’s since May, Lana’s since September—has led me to wonder what these two very different singer-songwriters have in common, and why both have a similarly dark, magnetic appeal for me (and, I suspect, many others).  Placing their latest albums in the context of their work as a whole, I can see that part of what’s intriguing about both of these artists is their blurring of the lines between authenticity and performance, mythmaking and confession.  Both perform femininity and embody it in ways alternately troubling and inspiring.

Continue reading “Lana del Rey, Florence and the Machine, and the Performance of Femininity”

Weekly Dance Break: Four Walls

If you’ve never delved into the deep and wonderful world of live music performances on Asian music shows, do yourself a favor and get there. The relentless pace of newly released material is really unparalleled, meaning you won’t be without a glimpse of your faves for long.

On deck today: my current jam, featuring my favorite androgynous Chinese-American star, Amber Liu. This performance is sure to give you some good 90s throwback vibes, featuring a bit of vogue-ing, a bit of wacking, and lots of flared pants.

Happy mid-week, ladies! Continue reading “Weekly Dance Break: Four Walls”

Artist Spotlight: Vyvian Looper / Luuli

This article may contain content troubling to readers, including discussions of sexual assault and self-harm.

When I saw Vyvian Looper at The Comet, a bar in Cincinnati, I asked her if she was back. Where was she living nowadays? In her car, she responded, with a small laugh. That’s her home. But she was back for a few days to perform in Cincinnati’s inaugural Ladyfest from October 15-17. She bounces around.

The soft-spoken Looper, or Luuli — her stage name — plays music and does art, but isn’t your typical performance artist. She’s more on par with unconventional performers such as Serbian Marina Abramović, known for brutally testing the limits of her body and mind. Like Abramović, there is sometimes blood involved in Luuli’s works. Continue reading “Artist Spotlight: Vyvian Looper / Luuli”

Weekly Dance Break: Misty Copeland x Yo-Yo Ma

This week, several wonderful things all in one place: Misty Copeland, Yo-Yo Ma, and a bonus dash of Stephen Colbert, for your viewing and self-care pleasure.

Weekly Dance Break: Japanese Granny Pop Group KBG84!

If you’re feeling stressed, let this geriatric pop group transport you to Okinawa (the average age in the group is 84, and they are everything.) From a story by The Guardian:

“When I first heard someone call us ‘idols’ I thought an idol meant someone who had lived a long life and was at the gates of heaven,” pint-sized diva Tomi Menaka, 92, told AFP in a herb garden overlooking Kohama’s turquoise sea.

“But in Tokyo they told me it was an entertainer – which was a relief because I thought it meant I was on my way to heaven,” she added, picking up steam as her fellow group members collapsed in fits of giggles. “I hadn’t even been to Tokyo or Osaka. I wanted to go there before I went to heaven.”

The 33-strong troupe of singers and dancers has released a single called “Come on and Dance, Kohama Island”, with a heart-warming video shot on the tiny honeymoon isle, which has a population of just 600 and lies a mere 150 miles (240 kms) off Taiwan.

Okinawan islanders have one of the highest life expectancies in the world, their diet containing more vegetables and less sugar than that of mainland Japanese, the staple food the purple-fleshed local sweet potato rather than rice.

Menaka, a queen bee of the group, which has a minimum age requirement of 80, stays fit by doing housework. But she is not particularly fussy about her diet.

“I like meat and sweet things,” she cackled, flanked by the group’s eldest member, 97-year-old Haru Yamashiro, who shook her head disapprovingly.

“I look after my health by cleaning my home, wiping the floors, steaming rice. I stay in the shade when it’s too hot. I don’t want to tan. I have to take care of my skin – I’m still young at heart!”

Continue reading “Weekly Dance Break: Japanese Granny Pop Group KBG84!”

Weekly Dance Break: Keone and Mari x EN Dance Showcase

I never get tired to watching this husband and wife duo do their thing.

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