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“I guess you go too far when pianos try to be guitars” — it’s a classic Tori Amos quote, and far be it from me to decipher any Tori Amos lyrics (oh don’t get me wrong; I love me some Tori.) but I find this quote to be particularly interesting and evocative. I looked up her own comments on the song, which added an interesting dimension to the lyric:

The line, I guess you go too far/when pianos try to be guitars is just about never being enough. I felt that with my instrument sometimes, wanting to be Jimmy Page. You can only be you. A lot of times it’s never enough for people.”

And I started thinking about gender. Now there’s nothing inherently gendered about playing guitar or piano: Joni Mitchell, Joan Jett, and Ani DiFranco all rock(ed) the guitar scene. Elton John, Rufus Wainwright, and Billy Joel are piano men. Nevertheless, I think these instruments get gendered. For some reason I cannot fathom, all the indie rocker guys singing with intentionally rough/scratchy/stylized voices are  don’t usually get dismissed as trying to be Dylan or a 60’s music throwback (or if they are, it’s considered a positive thing), and yet, you can’t be a woman with a piano without the Tori Amos/Sarah McLaughlin/your music is so 90’s comparison. I realize that there are exceptions to this (Regina Spektor seems to be doing pretty well for herself, thank god!), and so I’m going to full-out admit that I understand that there’s some generalizing involved. But that’s not the point…

Vienna Teng's <i>Inland Territory</i> is an intimate and sophisticated album.

Vienna Teng's Inland Territory is an intimate and sophisticated album.

Now, I love me some guys with guitars, but I also love some women with pianos. So I’m going to talk about two women with pianos who deserve your respect and your ears: Vienna Teng and Terami Hirsch. Are they trying to be “guitars”–make those kind of musical waves? I don’t know, but they do rock.

Vienna Teng is a Taiwanese-American singer-songwriter from the SF Bay Area (yay!). After graduating from Stanford, she went into computer engineering, only to give it all up to pursue her music. But before I get going on her music, let me get to the instance that inspired this post in the first place. Back in May, Vienna Teng launched her fourth album “Inland Territory.” I started searching for reviews of the album and came across this piece from Paste Magazine, which struck me as incredibly lazy. Not only did the author not bother to make sure he wrote down the track titles correctly (He called “White Light” “White Lie,”) but he also introduced the article with this rather telling statement:

With her nimble piano arpeggios and Lilith Fair balladry, Vienna Teng casts a backward glance during Inland Territory, a retro-minded release anchored in the legacy of Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan and other mainstays of the mid-‘90s female-songwriter boom.

It honestly felt to me as if Mr. Leahey heard the piano, thought “Lilith Fair,” assumed he knew what “Lilith Fair” meant,  and shut his brain off. To be fair, Teng, in general, makes deceptively simple music. Upon first hearing it, you’ll probably think, “Well, this is pretty.” And it is. She creates lovely, stirring piano melodies. But just because something sounds pretty and has a woman singing it, does that mean we can assume what the content is and shut our brains off? Have we really reached the point where melody translates to shallow except when Sufjan Stevens sings “Chicago”*?

If he had bothered listening to the album, Leahey would have heard songs exploring people’s willingness to ignore world events, mistakenly believing that what happens in “3rd world countries”  has nothing to do with them (“Radio”.) He would have heard a vignette from the point of view of a teenager in a hypothetical future in which Americans are sneaking over the border to Mexico, hunting for work (“No Gringo.”) He would have heard a song from the perspective of her Taiwanese grandmother, an attempt for her to understand her grandmother’s harsh criticism of her musical career while still portraying her grandmother as a brave, sympathetic individual who had to flee oppression in her homeland (“Grandmother Song.”) Throughout her songs, she puts on a variety of masks and personae to talk about contemporary issues, identity issues, and, yes, love. When she addresses political issues such as immigration (or gay marriage, as she did in her song “City Hall” off of “Dreaming Through the Noise,”) she focuses on the people these issues effects, forcing herself and others into the shoes of someone they may or may not find easy to relate to. I fail to see what’s so “retro-minded” about this kind of approach.

And that’s the thing about Vienna Teng: she seems so easy to dismiss, and this makes it all the more important that we don’t. Honestly, I think it’s because her music is irresistibly pretty that we allow it to succumb to our worst prejudices; at first even I was inclined to assumed that there was nothing behind the lovely, swirling piano. But pretty doesn’t have to mean hollow, and in Teng’s case, it certainly doesn’t. She’s a fantastic artist and performer, with remarkable empathy and sensitivity. I absolutely adore “Inland Territory,” but really, you can’t go wrong with any of her albums. I linked to her site above, which has some streaming music, and you can also check out her myspace.

As little-known as Vienna Teng is, singer-songwriter Terami Hirsch is one of the most obscure artists I listen to. That’s a fact, not

<i>A Broke Machine</i> is a dark, fascinating soundscape.

A Broke Machine is a dark, fascinating soundscape.

a bragging right–in fact, I wish she weren’t so obscure. Terami is a little difficult to classify. Though she’s piano-focused, she works with synths and keyboards to make highly textured, layered songs with mysterious lyrics. Her albums sometimes feel dark and heavy, but part of the heaviness simply comes from the digital layering.

I first fell in love with the song “Little Light,” off of Entropy 29. It felt like the theme song for an as-of-yet unwritten heroine of a dystopian tale. I know that is a terribly vague description; this is why I don’t describe music often on this blog–I simply don’t have the technical vocabulary to explain it. However, the rest of the album had such a specific mood to it that I found I could only listen to it when I had the energy to give it its deserved attention. A Broke Machine, her latest album, is no lighter, but perhaps more sophisticated and beautiful. Then again, I might be biased because it contains my favorite song of hers, “The Collector” (I’ll go back to that in a moment.)

I’m going to talk about “The Collector” in specific because I think it’s the closest I can come to encapsulating exactly why Terami fascinates me, despite it being more accoustic than her other songs. From the swirling piano intro, to the verse-chorus structure, there’s something instantly familiar about the song; it reminds you of a love ballad. And yet, something’s wrong. Maybe it’s the tone, the frightening lyrics, the sheer… obsessiveness of it.

Why can’t I let it go?
I’m tired of impossibilities
Chasing down a ghost
To pin it like a butterfly
And hang it on my wall for beauty
I was running through the noise
Playground photographs of me
Chasing down the boys
And tripping over shoelaces
I’ll hold them down to touch their beauty
Oh, I collect what I cannot hold
I collect what I ache for
I collect what I can’t let go…
I collect all I can!

It’s utterly creepy (and I do not condone unwanted touching of anyone, even if it’s children playing with each other,) but, ultimately, that’s what makes this song so interesting. It’s a broken love ballad, trying to contain beauty. And yet, there’s something so relate-able about this character, wanting to be closer to, to encompass what she finds beautiful/sexual. It’s disturbing, but thought-provoking, and utterly addictive to listen to. Some of her songs, of course, have a more of a sense of renewal: “A Hundred Flowers” has a sense of renewal; “There’s a Garden” is about remembering the happy person trapped within you during a bout of depression. But all of them twist your expectations. They are meticulously crafted little gems.

Unlike Teng, I think Terami is probably overlooked because she’s simply not commercial, despite the obvious care she takes in designing every aspect of her albums (down to the cover art!). And, you know, that’s not a criticism; plenty of people make music that’s difficult to get into. You can listen to Entropy 29 on her main site (linked above,) or check out her Myspace page for songs from A Broke Machine (yes, including “The Collector”.)

Sorry for the less-than-analytic post, but I’m tired and brain dead; I just wanted to post this before moss started growing on the mirror. I’m here, and I’m thinking, but I am but one woman, and occasionally susceptible to writer’s block. Hope everyone out there and reading is well!

*Disclaimer: I love Sufjan Stevens too.


Nostalgia™ (by Veidt)
(Don’t mind me. I’ve just been re-reading Watchmen to prep for the movie. Now on to the actual post.)

Lindsay, as the Nostalgia Chick, rolls her eyes at our childhood "favorites"

Lindsay, as the Nostalgia Chick, rolls her eyes at our childhood "favorites"

Back in August, Doug Walker, better known as the Nostalgia Critic or “that guy with the glasses,”  announced a contest to find the Nostalgia Chick. I was not watching the site at the time, so I have to admit I cannot quite gauge the actual fan reaction, but judging by the comments left behind, I think that, aside from a few, soundly mocked protestations that women were neither funny nor on the internet, it was met with enthusiasm.

For about a year, Doug had been producing videos of himself mocking the nostalgic movies and tv shows of the 80’s and early 90’s–Power Rangers, The Super Mario Brothers Movie, He-Man, etc.–launching himself to at least minor internet celebrity. He’d moved from Youtube to his own page, gained fans, added other reviewers to his site, and even ended up with his own Wikipedia page. But he realized that his approach to nostalgic media was missing all the trashy franchises  that were marketed towards the women of his generation. There needed to be a “Nostalgia Chick” to go with the critic*.

Enter Lindsay Ellis, film student. She’s actually a friend of mine from a study abroad program a few years back, and so I’m afraid I can’t claim complete neutrality when writing this post  (not to mention it was really easy to get her permission to write it. yay!). (On a side note, I’d feel like a really bad cultural critic if I were reporting an actual conflict instead of making a general observation.)

With her witty and sarcastic video (link goes to the TGWtG website. Video is also available on Youtube) making fun of Disney’s Pocahontas, Lindsay won over the fans and administrators of the “That Guy With the Glasses” site**. But even before accepting the position, she found herself embroiled in the dramatic, troll-filled wasteland that is the realm of internet comments. Believe it or not, the results were surprising.

Now, of course, if you put anything on the internet, you’re bound to get criticism, often very stupid criticism. It’s inevitable. Every reviewer (nay! every review!) on the TGWtG site receives its share of flames. I’m not here to debate whether that should happen or not. Really, what was surprising was not that Lindsay’s appearance on the internet scene had its detractors as well as fans; what’s interesting is the nature of the complaints surrounding Lindsay’s videos. From the very beginning, before she even won the contest, people called her out for the way she talked and the way she dressed. According to one particularly memorable (and frightening) commenter:

I have watched all the nostalgia critic’s videos, so yes, I understand he curses and makes sexual references, but, for every single one of the women applying, when they say the F-word, not only does it not seem fitting for them to cuss in that way, it seemed strained. Maybe it’s my personal preference, but I don’t think it sounds natural.

I know [the Nostalgia Critic] has said he would like to make love to himself, but that’s not selling sexuality, that is humor. He asked if the Disney execs wanted to f*** bunnies, yes, that’s also humor, but he sounds normal when he says it. Again, for all the women, it sounded strained. And yes, Speed Racer dresses up like a sperm, that’s again, humor. For every sexual reference in Lindsay’s video, I just didn’t understand why. It did not make sense to me why you would put that there, it was amusing, but she forced it to be, it really didn’t have much to do with a review of any kind.

In his call out for the Nostalgia Chick, yes he states he has testicles, and yes, part of my problem with Lindsay’s review is that her shirt is cut too low. The Nostalgia Critic can never, in any way, because he has testicles, use them as a tool to get anything for free in life. (Source)

(I’m going to let you make the bitter comments that last sentence merits because if I were to do so, it’d cramp my calm, rational tone. I’m sure you can do a good job with that.)

Unsurprisingly, no one ever really discusses how the Nostalgia Critic dresses. No one seems concerned that he swears or uses sexual humor. But, according to this commenter, by discussing sex, Lindsay automatically draws attention to herself sexually, and not to any of the sexual implications of the Disney movie. Essentially, per this logic, a woman saying, “sex,” is sexual. The Nostalgia Critic, on the other hand, can talk about not wanting to have sex with an anthropomorphized rabbit (see his Space Jam review) without people considering him to bringing his sexuality into the forefront.

The use of swearing, which is pretty much accepted as normal coming from the critic, is criticized as “not fitting” and “strained.” when coming from Lindsay and the other  Nostalgia Chick finalists.  I somehow find it difficult to believe that all five of the entries chosen happened to be by women who felt uncomfortable cussing and yet decided to swear anyhow. I’m inclined to believe the commenter just was uncomfortable with women saying, “fuck.” <–(Shiver in your boots, why don’t you–I typed it! Oh, and I’m a woman on the internet. Double the horror.) Judgmental of me? Perhaps, but less judgmental, I should think, than his assumption that a woman wearing a shirt that shows a bit of cleavage decided to do so in order to get a free ride.

This comment was a minority opinion (though comment battles raged well into the voting period)–I don’t want to give a misrepresentation of Nostalgia Critic fans. But I think this kind of exaggerated response helps explain the bizarre way many fans have received the Nostalgia Chick. Even though she has the same modus operandi as the critic, fans treat her very differently. Why? Because the same logic that triggered that extremist outrage is still embedded in our culture. Though people do have a genuine appreciation for her comedic talent, fans treat the Nostalgia Chick as a woman before considering her as an entertainer. That is to say that no matter what she says, no matter if the clips of her to clips of the film ratio were to be 1:25 (not an accurate ratio by any means,) by merely being a woman making a video of herself, people consider her to be drawing attention to her physical appearance. Fans have debates within the comment section about whether she’s hotter with or without glasses. They jokingly proposition her. You can argue that this is inevitable, and, for the most part, it’s pretty harmless. I’m not even suggesting finding someone hot is a sign of shallowness or moral weakness. But all the while there is something off about this kind of treatment: Lindsay is not making videos about herself. Her comedy takes center stage in all her videos, and yet many people treat her as if her purpose was to stand there and look pretty. Because, you know, that’s the most important priority in every woman’s life.

As Lindsay continued her reviews, fans began to speculate on the second-most important thing in every woman’s life: her relationship with men.*** When she asked a male friend of hers to appear in her “Top 10 Most Disturbing and Inescapable Christmas Songs,”  fans asked her, “was that your brother or your boyfriend?” (source). Apparently straight women can’t have guy friends. More speculation as to Lindsay’s relationship status arose when she did a joint review of the movie Ferngully with the Nostalgia Critic. Although before commenters wondered if “That Guy With the Glasses [aka: Doug] is banging this chick,” using phrasing that makes me wonder if they meant to imply that Lindsay’s (non-existent) connection to Doug was involved in getting her a slot on the site (source,) rumors now reached a boiling point, with people suggesting that they were siblings, married, or dating. Included in this slew were people who were joking that they’d look cute together, and I feel a little uncomfortable accusing those particular comments as being signs of anything other than a tendency to match-make. On the other hand, many of the comments assumed that Lindsay had to have some connection with Doug (other than winning the contest) to have her role. It’d be enough to drive anyone insane.

Nevertheless, Lindsay continues to make videos and make people laugh. Yes, those people who don’t seem to understand that women are both on the internet and in comedy still make sickening comments such as “She’d be hot if she didn’t talk.” And, yes, fans still take the “you’re hot” commentary to disturbing levels and draw pictures of her in swimsuits. She’s learned to ignore it. But as a cultural critic, I can’t resist pointing out how weird this all is, especially in contrast to the kinds of comments that her male counterpart gets. What does it say about our culture that male audiences feel entitled to make this kind of commentary? What does it say about our culture that one of the first concerns voiced by fans when the contest was announced was “since the site is male dominated, any woman is going to be subject to a whole manner of abusive and sexual comments” (source)?

The internet’s a scary place for anyone creative. Add in gender bias, and things get scarier. I’m glad Lindsay’s risen to the challenge.

You can check out the Nostalgia Chick’s videos here or on her Youtube channel.

*I know that some people might object to the “critic/chick” dichotomy, but I’m going to give the website the benefit of the doubt and assume that it ended up this way because the Nostalgia Critic originally was just a solo deal.

**On a side note, the two runners-up ended up with their own segments on the site. I’m not familiar with them, so I’m afraid I can’t include them in this post. But if  you have anything to add about them, feel free to share.

***At the risk of being a terrible writer by unnecessarily pointing out my own gag, that was sarcasm.

Whew, that took me longer than I thought it would. Now it’s time to dance around the kitchen do very important, diligent things. Until next time!

Happy 127th, Ginny!

Happy 127th, Ginny!

(I really hate that I have to rush this post)

Oddly enough, so many people who (have) play(ed) an important roll in my life were born in January. Therefore, it was a serendipitous discovery, but not a huge surprise when I discovered that Virginia Woolf’s birthday was yesterday, January 25th. With its writer posthumously reaching the ripe old age of 127 (if my basic arithmatic serves me correctly), her work still is fresh, radical, and moving, and that is truly something to celebrate.

I admit that sometimes I feel a little embarassed about loving Virginia Woolf simply because whenever I say that I do I get a fairly irrational fear that people are writing me off as a walking cliché. I wrote my senior thesis on the relationship between gender and creativity in three of her novels. Telling people my topic usually resulted a bit in “Oh. Of course. What else there is to write about her?” (Captain Subtext translates this as: Oh great: here’s another woman writing about Woolf. Get the cheese to go with the whine.)

So now that I’m writing this mini-tribute, I have to figure out what to say. Believe me, I could go on and on (and on) about her novels. When read my first book by Woolf, To the Lighthouse, as a freshman in college, I was shocked by its power, its ability to change me. Literally– after reading a chapter, it would take a good half an hour to get me to stop myself from thinking in long, detailed monologues. But as this is a cultural criticism blog, I think the only fitting tribute for her right now would be to talk about her as a cultural critic.

If I now write as a cultural critic, it’s thanks to Virginia Woolf. I had always known cultural criticism was important. I had always known cultural criticism was interesting. But Woolf showed me. From the moment I read A Room of One’s Own, which I still think is one of the best and most relevant essays ever, I saw the kind of writer I wanted to be. Room, you see, is an essay about cultural privilege. It’s about how society crafts the idea of who can write. It’s also about Woolf poking fun at ridiculous the ridiculous assumptions men make about women–many people don’t realize that she had a marvelous sense of humor. What she realized is than in a society that spends all its time worrying about what differentiates a MAN from a WOMAN (all-caps to emphasize the silly binary thinking), a woman could be a woman writer, but she couldn’t be a writer. Her conclusion, that a woman needs space and an income to be able to craft fiction, seems shockingly materialistic, especially in contrast to the poetic meditations on where creativity comes from that you hear from most writers. But Woolf recognized the cultural climate. She recognized privilege. She recognized that woman’s education, though it existed, was so low on her culture’s priority list that even the food women’s schools served was inferior. Her conclusion is practical, but that’s what makes it radical. Spiritual, lyrical rhapsodies about the soul of art are irrelevant in an environment that is not condusive to creation in the first place. She taught me that understanding culture was vital to changing it.

But beyond her skilled writing, I will never cease to be impressed with how much bravery she had to have to write at all. How to explain? Well, let me tell you a strange story: The summer before I wrote my thesis, I spent a lot of time in the British Isles, volunteering on organic farms, and reading all the Woolf I possibly could. As I spent my days digging weeds and shoveling compost, I hoped that the spirit of place would help add some compost to the little seeds of my thesis that I was cultivating in my own brain. It did–but not in the way I was expecting.

In Surrey, my friends and I stayed with Emma and Peter (names have been changed to protect the British), helping out in their small organic garden. The day we arrived coincided with their annual village barbecue, and they offered to bring us along as cultural enrichment. I quickly learned that a British barbecue is not an American barbecue. Each family brought their own card table and rocking chairs; not to mention that the table cloths were neither plastic nor red-checked, and the plates and glasses were most definitely breakable. There was no barbecue grill. A band clad in red and white pinstriped suits and straw hats piped a selection of 1920’s-style jazz. As my friends and I sat with our hosts, drinking wine (a white entitled “Pisse D’oie,” which, yes, does in fact mean goose piss.) that had been brought back from a jaunt across the channel to France (thank you, Chunnel), we began to learn that village life in Southern England often has a very… novelistic feel to it. Well, novelistic is the word if we’re talking P.G. Wodehouse.

Attempting to write the reactions of our hosts’ friends to our motley barely-showered trio makes me feel like I’m oversimplifying the matter. I don’t believe anyone can be a walking stereotype, no matter how much of one a person may appear to be . I don’t and have never believed that British people actually were a part of a magical race with gorgeous accents who walked around with Burberry umbrellas, drinking tea, chatting about cricket scores, and worrying about class above all. Therefore, it was a bit of a shock when our hosts and their friends started telling us the precise age of every building in the vicinity (The vulgar “new” buildings being a mere century old) and insisting that Britain had never wanted India anyhow. History apparently just dropped an entire nation in their lap (And, you know, one must take up the “white man’s burden” and all that.). I felt as if I had stepped into a farce, or at least an episode of “Keeping Up Appearances.”

When they asked us about ourselves, I mentioned that I was reading for my thesis on Woolf. Our hosts and their friends laughed amongst themselves remarking, “Ah! She would love to write about a party just like this one!”

I couldn’t tell how they meant it: if they were laughing at her, me, or themselves. I don’t know if they understood the depth of their remark, or if they just knew that Mrs. Dalloway was about a party. And I’ll never know.

What I do know is that their simple remark gained new significance when the gossip turned to the new village of the vicar who was, scandalously, a “lady vicar.” Her husband had moved to follow her job and was seeking employment in the area.

“Who ever heard of a husband moving for his wife’s job?” an older man remakred.

As if understanding that this did not seem particularly shocking to their guests, Emma was quick to explain, “It’s not that we don’t like it; it’s just so new.” She continued to explain this change in their community: “You just don’t get a proper British vicar these days; in fact, you never know what you’re going to get. You can get a lady vicar, or a black vicar, or… what’s the other one?”

“A gay vicar?” offered my friend Tom.

“Yes! That’s it! A gay vicar! Or all three–you just never know.”

Suddenly, everything Woolf had been up against, with her depression, her refusal to be herteronormative (her sexuality was tremendously complicated.), her strength, and her unapologetic radicalism, all of that became clearer to me. Though I do not use this strange moment of culture shock as a mental model for the gendered climate of all of England, the fact that this kind of attitude still exists there makes me truly understand just how amazing and shocking she was. She was truly awesome, both in the slang sense and the “awe” sense.

Woolf had her faults. I don’t believe in perfect heros. But nevertheless, I love her. I love her because she dared to be a cultural critic. I love her for her frankness. I love her for her sense of humor. And I love her for her excellent writing.

Happy Birthday, Ginny! We still love you!

“Tina Fey has never dated a bad boy. She didn’t even let boys she dated do anything bad.”

Tina Fey on the cover of Vanity Fair

Tina Fey on the cover of Vanity Fair

So begins Maureen Dowd’s recent article in Vanity Fair, “What Tina Wants” (accompanied by the blurb on the cover “A New American Sweetheart”). Reading this sentence, I can almost hear my eighth grade writing teacher announcing to the class in her rich Scottish accent, “Your intro paragraph always must begin with an attention grabber!” Clearly, Dowd intends it to be one–considering its usage, it could practically be in the dictionary under “attention grabber.” So this all just makes one wonder: why does it grab our attention? The fact itself isn’t completely shocking; I’m sure plenty of women have never dated bad boys (not to mention that if Fey admitted that she had let the boys she dated do “bad” things, she’d probably find herself on the other side of the virgin/whore dichotomy, but that’s another story). Right from the start, we’re confronted with Dowd trying to spin something not particularly odd into something completely unusual. I think part of it is that Fey successfully flouts her expectations. Unphased, throughout the article Dowd digs as hard as she can to find some way in which Fey’s personality echoes the image she has conjured of her.

During cocktails at her apartment, I ask Fey, What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done?

“Nothing,” she replies blithely. (page 2)

But there are no affairs to find, just the time when Fey’s husband “got in trouble” for joking that they should go to a strip club. There’s no scandalous tales gossiped from co-workers, just the assertion that Fey is a world-class observer, one of the secrets to any sort of good writing, comedic or otherwise. For that matter, she’s not anyone’s puppet (“’Tina is not clay’ says Lorne Michaels, the impresario of Saturday Night Live, Mean Girls, and 30 Rock, when I ask him how he helped shape her career” [page 1].). And, unable to find these tropes to center her article, Dowd tries another tactic, one we’re probably all familiar with. My mom saw it in the 60’s, my friends and I saw it as teenagers in the 90’s. It’s the romantic comedy narrative standard of the just-remove-glasses and stir ugly ducking.

From an objective writerly perspective, I’m unsure of what Dowd is trying to accomplish in this article–it meanders in circles. As I said before, I almost get the sense that she approached it with a certain set of expectations, didn’t have them met, and was reduced to trying to fit what she did find out into some semblance of structure. But stranger still, and more interesting, is Fey’s relative silence throughout the article. Dowd has elected to tell the trajectory of Fey’s career almost entirely from the perspective of the men in her life. Feminist objections aside, there’s just something jarring about not hearing from someone who’s known for her comedy, her writing, her voice in a piece about her life. I can only conclude that Dowd, in her desire to fit Tina Fey into the “glamor-puss” role she (or Vanity Fair) created, had to tone down Fey’s “activeness.” She attempts to shove a kind of “American Dream” tale (woman who does hard work gets rewarded) into a Cinderella makeover story, resulting in a textual and subtextual mess.

Steve Higgins, an S.N.L. producer, observes, ‘When she got here she was kind of goofy-looking, but everyone had a crush on her because she was so funny and bitingly mean. How did she go from ugly duckling into swan? It’s the Leni Riefenstahl in her. She has such a German work ethic even though she’s half Greek. It’s superhuman, the German thing of ‘This will happen and I am going to make this happen.’ It’s just sheer force of will. (page 1)

As I mentioned before, the rhetoric here is half American Dream, half Stacy and Clinton’s “What Not to Wear” celebrity super special edition (I don’t know if that actually exists). Perhaps fitting into the New York image allowed Fey to appear on TV, but it was her comedic sensibility that got her that far in the first place. If we want to reduce people’s lives to narratives, why does Dowd have to explicitly use Cinderella (and, for that matter, Sex and the City): ” She got her own slipper, writing and willing herself into the role, and the shoe wasn’t glass. It was a silver Manolo Blahnik.”? Is a makeover really the female equivalent of the American Dream?

The slipper just doesn’t fit, even as Dowd slices the story. Her tone doesn’t match the details. I think my favorite example of this is Dowd’s apparent shock that back when Fey was doing Second City gigs in Chicago “She used to wear crazy boots…knee-length frumpy dresses with thrift-store sweaters.” In other words, she dressed like a college student. As I myself, was, up until very recently, a college student, I just don’t have it in me to drudge up the shock. Living in the Pacific Northwest probably doesn’t help either, but I guess that’s not the point. I know that if you want to get into the entertainment industry, especially in a place like New York, you have to look the part. You have to be a sophisticate. Despite Dowd’s attempt to shroud it in mystique, when I read Fey’s story I see not a cosmetic miracle, but the story of a woman who realized that she had to dress the part to be taken seriously. She was already writing for SNL; they just wouldn’t let her on TV. She had the talent, the drive; all that was missing was the image. Call it a feminist defeat; call it just the way things are–I don’t care. Right or wrong, it was just another step along the difficult road of becoming a self-made woman in a world where women need both brains and beauty to get noticed. Seinfeld didn’t need to be a hunk and could dress down grungy, but Tina Fey’s gotta wear those pumps. It’s sick that the world works like that, yes, and it’s even more sick that Dowd chose to center her tale of Fey’s career around what was perhaps the smallest aspect of her success.

The quotes from the article chosen to accompany the lovely Annie Leibovitz photography are even more puzzling. Next to an image of Fey dancing

Tina Fey, as photographed by Annie Leibovitz

Tina Fey, as photographed by Annie Leibovitz

around, smiling and carefree is the blurb, “I like to look goofy, but I also don’t want to get canceled because of my big old butt.” While I find the actualand image counteracts how free Fey looks while dancing. It feels like a textual punishment: you can’t really be this joyful because you have a butt. I have yet to truly understand what exactly made this such an important quotation as to be excerpted from the article. As it is, it adds yet another contradictory message to the tangled subtext: She’s a brain. No, she’s a brain-turned-glamour puss-who-somehow-retained-the-brain. But, don’t worry, other women: she’s still a butt despite it all.

Regardless of how pretty Tina Fey may be I’ve never actually met anyone who would talk about her looks before her comedy. But Dowd’s article–though it does veers into the Palin sketches (“Did she ever use the Sarah Palin voice to entice her own First Dude?” Dowd asks [pg. 2].) and 30 Rock (“30 Rock features many shots of Liz Lemon’s younger life, when she looks like a nerd in goofy clothes and frizzy hair. ‘I really wasn’t heavy in high school,’ Fey recalls over lunch one afternoon at Café Luxembourg, where she dutifully switches her order from a B.L.T. to a salad” [pg. 2].)–has body on the brain.

Whether she did it just to sell magazines or if she’s acting on her own prejudices, Dowd has done everything in her power to tease out the body and bawdy from this career, but no matter if you want to package her as America’s Sweetheart or as just a very talented comedic writer/producer who worked her butt off, in the end, Fey just comes across as smart and driven. Plain and simple. I, for one, like that; I’m not sure why Dowd doesn’t.

(You can read the full article here or in the January 2009 issue of Vanity Fair, starting on page 66.)

*Apologies to the writers of Frost/Nixon for stealing their title. The movie, while fairly unrelated to anything having to do with this article, is actually fantastic.

Noe Venable

Noe Venable

We’ve all heard the phrases for female indie/alternative musicians: chick rock, a girl and her guitar/piano. Descriptive, yes, but you always get the sense that someone’s saying that they’re oh-so precious, precious being used in that grating way creative writing teachers enjoy springing on you when they think that your story veers dangerously close to resembling a Norman Rockwell illustration. In short, so many female musicians get dismissed as not being serious artists before anyone even hears them, which is a shame because many of them are wonderful (and some aren’t, as with any group of artists.) Rather sad, don’t you think? So let me introduce you to one. By far one of my favorite “indie” folk/rock/alternative singer-songwriters is Noe Venable. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of her; really, no one has heard of her outside of dedicated fans and the San Francisco music scene (although now she’s at school in Massachusetts, so maybe she’s getting some publicity over there.).

Sometimes I think becoming a fan of a musician is a little like falling in love: people hear a song they like, and it decides to follow them home. Next thing you know they are buying every single album by that artist, shelling out money for fan club memberships, and reading a year’s worth of blog entries. For about a month or so, no one can touch that artist’s brilliance, but soon the novelty wears off they get comfortable with him or her and settle down. The insatiable lust tapers off into something more comfortable. My fascination with Noe’s music was never like that. Honestly, the first time I heard her song “Boots” (from the album of the same name), I knew that I was listening to something brilliant but couldn’t enjoy it. I found her voice jarring and fragile. Nevertheless, the song wouldn’t leave me alone. It demanded to be listened to, begged for second chances. Believe me, “Boots” definitely deserved a second chance.

Noe is vibrant, thoughtful, irreverent, and tender. One minute she’ll be singing a mysterious song of personal transformation, the next she’ll be comparing a sunset to cunnilingus. The beautiful, the erotic, the terrifying, the esoteric, and the ugly all have a place in her world, which makes it all the more satisfying and real. Nowhere is this more apparent than on her fourth album, Boots. Noe says of Boots:

In so many of my favorite stories these troubled men dream of finding a woman to save them. You read stories like that and you’re troubled, and you start dreaming of the same thing. Then one day you wake up and say, wait, I am the woman in those stories. But I’m troubled! So now who’s going to save me? I think that’s where Boots begins.

I think most fans prefer “The World is Bound By Secret Knots,” which is also a fantastic album, but “Boots” is my personal favorite. Even the first two songs on the album alone work together to produce a stunning musical portrait of the disparity between projected and personal identity. The first song, and title track of the album, is sung from the point of view of a woman who relies on a pair of boots for strength when dealing with the dangerous realities of her world:

I go to the corner where it all goes down
and I do things I’ll regret but not right now
they say “angel, you been here before”
yeah, I had my boots to carry me

just like Pandora with her box
I let everything out and spin around
and when they come to me, it’s like a river to cross
but I have my boots to ferry me

I’d like to see my eyes in someone else’s face
I’d like to see my face on a magazine
the things I want, the life I need
my boots keep me between

The end of the song fades into an acapella section which soon melds organically into the softer, gentler guitar intro of the second track, “Prettiness.” It is unclear whether the narrators of the two songs are intended to be the same or different, but both women are equally aware that while the personae created by the clothes they wear may be fragile and false, they have everything to do with the way people treat them:

I have never been one for prettiness prettiness
thinking of lace ’bout makes me puke
but the thing I just bought has a little bit little bit
I’m putting it on and I’m thinking of you

when I was a child I followed some holy men
going into woods to do their work
I had an overcoat on just to cover me cover me
listening for anything I might learn

and there were stars up in the heavens
and if they caught me, what could they do?
they did not know I was a woman
at least I didn’t think they knew

It would be, as one of my friends suggests, so easy to dismiss this as another woman singing about cutesy things, using boots and lace as metaphors for what kind of woman she is. But the use of clothing here is both deliberate and clever. After all, no matter your gender, clothing is a major part of the creation of public image. Noe has done a fantastic job capturing the dilemma so many women (and men) face in deciding how to present themselves, the tention between who we are, who we have to be to get the job done, and who we could be.

When I think of these songs, I picture characters like Dana Scully on the X-Files.  I see my mother back when she was trying to apply to medical school, and had to deal with interview questions such as, “How do you feel taking a man’s spot?” I remember an article I read about women in academia who faced a nightmare getting dressed in the morning because no matter what they wore they either seemed too frumpy, frigid, or sexy to be taken seriously. All of these women have (or had) to somehow transcend their gender in order to be taken seriously for the work they do. Women who want to “see their face on a magazine” or dream of being able to “follow some holy men,” have to craft their personae very carefully.  In both the literal and symbolic senses, we have to know when to wear lace and when combat boots. To be taken seriously as a tough woman, as a smart woman, we have to put on androgynous boots, try to be just asexual enough without losing female identity. Therefore, when we do show a little bit of lace, ask to be seen both as  brilliant minds and as potential significant others, we risk losing our boots, our symbols of strength and courage. We risk becoming mere sex objects. And it’s scary. At the end of “Prettiness,” as the instrumentation swells, only to suddenly vanish beneath her voice, Noe asserts, “He does not know I am a woman, | But I think I might want him to know.” The risk, trust, and self-confidence embodied in that statement is at once incredibly powerful and relatable.

Not all of Noe’s songs are about gender identity. In “Strange Companion,” she sings from the point of view of a car who witnesses the brutal murder of its owner. In “Prayer for Beauty,” she daringly asserts that a belief in the potential for beauty is necessary to combat ugliness in the world. In “Juniper,” she sings from the point of view of a child who feels most at home amongst the branches of her favorite tree. Noe treats all of these subjects and characters with thought-provoking insight and fantastic (mostly) acoustic accompaniment. Her music is truly a treat for both the mind and the ear.

If you’re interested in learning more about Noe, or hearing a song or two, I suggest you check out her official website, where she has a few songs for download, or her myspace page.


From the Cracked Mirror is a blog about culture, both high and low, including art, literature, film, food, and advertising from a progressive and feminist perspective. I’m here to critique, elucidate, wonder, and gush...

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