This video is about road trips. It is also about home videos and the act of making them.
This video addresses Rick Prelinger's idea that the American road trip is a product of a bygone era, or in other words, dead.
Just like home videos.
Everyone is documenting everything.
But you wouldn't call them home videos.
If you listen to the full interview with Rick Prelinger, which you can find at KCRW, you will hear him talk about the ephemerality of home videos. The home videos that he used to create No More Road Trips? was abandoned. No one wanted them, not even the descendants of those who recorded them.
We live in a world defined by ephemerality. We document everything, gather our likes and hearts, and then move on to the next thing.
And yet, we find ourselves scrolling through old Facebook posts. Do you remember this Instagram? This Vine was so funny. I can't believe I used to look like that. Whatever happened to that old place, to those people?
We rarely gather around as a family, Dad dragging out the old projector, Mom making popcorn, to watch old home videos. But we still remember. We still make the past our entertainment. There is still an audience for our nostalgia.
The home video is dead. Long live the home video.
Adam Cecil is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is also the Managing Editor of this zine. You can find more of his work on his website.
You’re not supposed to ask an Alzheimer’s patient, “Who’s this person, what’s his name? Do you remember him?” It insults them, but Nana never had that reaction. She giggled and sometimes remembered I’m Rachel; other times she called me Debbie or Linda. Debbie is my aunt. I have no idea who Linda is.
My brother Wil and I spent most of our time before kindergarten at our grandparents’ house in Holiday City, a quiet retirement community in Toms River, New Jersey. The houses were all pastel-colored one-storied homes with neatly kept lawns like the neighborhood in Edward Scissorhands. I went on walks with my grandfather and was always annoyed at how he would stop and chat with any neighbor who was sitting on their porch, taking out garbage, getting pulled out on a stretcher. I can’t remember my grandmother ever going outside unless she was with someone.
I remember her mostly in the kitchen, in a floral apron always equipped with tissues. She kept her silk white hair out of her face with dozens of bobby pins. Her dark skin was wrinkled like paper. Her eyes, though brown, had blue linings on their limbus. Sometimes she played Go Fish with us. When one of my favorite Beanie Babies ripped, she sewed it back together like it was nothing. She taught me how to write a Z in cursive.
When I was 9, after my grandfather died, Nana moved into my father’s house in Allentown, NJ, where Wil and I lived half the time after our parents divorced. We had to share my bedroom while my dad rearranged the house. I remember they argued a lot, but I don’t remember about what. I think most of them were misunderstandings. Her catchphrase for a while was, “May the Lord strike me down!”
At our dad’s in the summertime, Wil and I spent the days with Nana, since we didn’t go to school in Allentown and didn’t know anyone within more than a block radius. We had a neighbor, Pat, who was super awesome and always bought us toys because she hated her teenage daughter. Plus, she let us swim in her pool when she wasn’t there. (I liked Pat until I was 15, when she got drunk and insisted that she rub sunscreen on my badly sunburnt legs. That freaked me out.) Around noon, Nana would trot next-door and tell us lunch was ready, and we’d beg for five minutes, and she would say we weren’t even supposed to be there anyway. She never understood that Pat allowed us to trespass.
Nana and I would watch That’s So Raven on her bed. She got a kick out of Raven for some reason. She called her “the girl.” We watched American Idol, too. She spoke so highly of Randy Jackson. She would go, “That one, that feller, he’s reasonable. He’s the nice one.” The Twilight Zone was reserved for New Year’s Eve, when SciFi ran marathons (before they changed their name). I was glued to the TV for the episode “The Eye of the Beholder,” even though Nana called out the twist at the beginning. She chirped up, “Isn’t she actually beautiful and they’re piggies?” I was amazed by how smart she was when I saw the ending.
On her birthday in 2005, I won the lead role of Gertrude McFuzz in our school’s play, Seussical the Musical. (Some people will tell you Gertrude is not the lead, but they are wrong. She is the most important character in the whole story.) Wil and I came home from school and couldn’t find Nana anywhere. She was always in the kitchen making dinner when we came home. Her bedroom door was closed, so I peeked in. I saw her sitting in the dark with the TV on. She wasn’t paying any attention to it. I turned on the light.
“What are you doing in here?” I asked.
She lifted her head and her eyes slowly lit up, as if it took her a moment to come back from a sad memory. “Oh, hello.”
“Happy birthday! How old are you?”
“Too old,” she chuckled. Wil made a b-line for her remote control and then her forehead for a kiss. He put sunglasses and a tiara on her and insisted that I take her picture with my nifty new camera phone.
“Hey, Nana, guess what? Rachel is going to play a stupid bird onstage –“
“Shut up! I’m telling her. Nana, I’m going to play the lead bird in our school play.”
She clapped her hands together and exclaimed, “My little actress!”
Over the next few months, she began giving me a lot of her possessions. She had a little knickknack of a Japanese boy, a knickknack of an old man reading a newspaper called Good News. A couple kissing on a bench, a candle with a dog next to a fire hydrant. They all showed up on my dresser one day and I thought maybe it was Wil pulling a prank on me without actually knowing how comedy worked. But when I tried to return them to her, she shook her head.
“No, no, I want you to have them.”
“Why? Don’t you want them?”
“I want you to have them.” She handed me a book called The Tragedy of X. I had never heard her talk about books or movies or anything that she had read or watched on her own. It prompted me to ask her what her favorite movie actually was.
She thought a minute. “I can’t remember the name… Judy Garland. She’s a girl. It’s in color. Some of it.”
“Do you mean The Wizard of Oz?”
“Yeah. That one was good.”
I pestered her that entire day with questions about her past. It hadn’t occurred to me until then, at 13 years old, that this woman knew everything about me, (even how I liked my peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwiches) yet I barely knew a thing about her outside of being my grandmother. Unlike my parents, or even my grandfather, who always made sure their stories would live on through Wil and me, Nana never spoke anything about life before 1992. All I knew about her childhood was that she was the youngest of five kids and hated her older sister, Jenny, who one time (allegedly) held her head under a faucet. That was all I knew of her life before my birth. I tried to get more out of her:
“Was the Great Depression tough?”
“Huh? Yeah. I played baseball.”
“Did you like Elvis?”
“Don’t stand so close to the stove.”
“You’ll catch on fire.”
“I’m nowhere near the stove! Can you still speak Italian? What does fongool mean?” I asked, knowing full well what it meant.
“It means put plates on the table.”
On March 8th, 2006, she woke up and complained that her stomach hurt, but we were running late for school and I told her to feel better. My father called later to tell Wil and I that she went to the hospital for an ulcer.
My play was later that week. “Will she still be able to see me be Gertrude?”
“I don’t know, Rachel.”
She didn’t get better later that week, that month, or that year. She was in the hospital for the whole summer and then was put into a nursing home. Every time we visited, Nana became less and less of the woman I had known for fourteen years. We used to sit in the cafeteria because the rooms could get stuffy and, depending on who Nana’s roommate was at the time, smelled like either urine or too much perfume. Whenever I would say that I felt bad with her stuck there, my dad would say in the kindest way possible that it’s her own fault for not taking care of herself. I thought she took care of herself okay. She liked Oreos and Entenmann’s pound cake, but I never saw her eat in excess. In fact, even when she was in the hospital and couldn’t be fed without help, she still offered everyone her food. When she couldn’t speak, she would pick up a soggy piece of bread and hold it in front of me in case I wanted it.
I fed her in the nursing home because she was too weak to feed herself. My dad and my brother used to roughhouse with each other in their seats, which made me angry because it seemed disrespectful. But at some point I no longer minded it. Maybe this is what we would be doing if we were at home. Maybe this makes it feel more like old times. My dad wasn’t as close to Nana as he was his father, but I know in his own way, he cared about her. For a while, every visit her wheelchair would be so dusty you could write the Bible in it. Each visit he would speak to management and say something needed to be done, and nothing ever was, until finally Wil and I heard him through the walls ripping the manager a new one in his office. Her wheelchair was spotless after that.
There were these two sisters in their 60s who were always there visiting their 100-year-old mother. Every single time we visited, no matter what day of the week or what time of day, they’d be there. They were the only people Nana would talk to. It was a relief that she had a place to sit and she wasn’t alone. They told me I was a good granddaughter, feeding my grandmother like that. But one day, the three of them weren’t there and we never saw them again.
“So, Nana, who’s this?” my dad would ask, pointing to Wil. Unlike me, who, with the exception of puberty, has generally looked the same throughout life, my brother has never looked like the same person for more than 6 months.
“Hummm… Bill,” she guessed.
“Your son? That’s me,” he teased.
She smiled, thinking she was correcting him. “My man, Bill.”
The three of us shared a laugh and she joined in. Even if she didn’t get it, it was just nice to see her laughing instead of crying that she wanted to go home. I think our biggest laugh together was one time I asked her if she had a bellybutton. I never knew the whole story, but apparently after she gave birth to my aunt, her bellybutton had to be removed, or something. I’m not positive if that’s even true or if she was, as she would say, “pulling my leg.” Either way, I asked her if she had one, and she goes, “I don’t know, let me check,” and lifted her shirt all the way up, exposing her breasts to us. We all lost it, and that time I think she knew what we were laughing about. The first boobs Wil saw were his grandmother’s.
That’s how visits typically went until I was 18 and heading off to NYU. Though she couldn’t hold a conversation before, she soon couldn’t even answer basic yes-or-no questions. I visited her the day before I moved to New York and found her wheeling aimlessly around the hallways. She didn’t understand that when I tried to take her into the cafeteria, we were visiting her. She didn’t know who any of us were.
During spring break of 2011, when the rest of the world was busy torturing Rebecca Black, Nana had to go into the hospital again. I didn’t pay much attention to how serious my dad was making this time sound, since he’s the kind of guy who every time someone has a cold, he’s preparing their eulogy. But it soon became clear that for once my dad’s exaggerations were realistic. We all knew what was around the corner.
On March 19th, 2011, my mother took Wil and I to see Nana. We found our father beside her. She was hardly recognizable. The nurses wrapped gloves around her hands to keep her from pulling tubes, but when they were off, you could see her long, yellow nails. Her hair that she had once meticulously kept in bobby pins was greasy and strewn about, and her fragile body was mangled and twisted in sheets and tubes. On her stomach was a giant unshapely bump that stuck out about 10 inches. I just assumed it was more tubes and ignored it.
“You guys know what that is?” my dad asked.
Wil shook his head, and I answered confidently, “Yeah, just her tubes.”
My dad responded, “Her stomach. That’s her food. But she has no more muscle, so it all just sits there.”
“Okay, stop talking.”
“You remember Alien–”
“SHUT UP!” I screamed.
If my dad’s girlfriend hadn’t been in the bathroom, she would’ve yelled at me to respect my father, and how I’m ungrateful. But thankfully she wasn’t, it was only my parents, Wil, and what was left of Nana. I looked in her eyes, and she returned back a conscious gaze that I hadn’t seen in years. She cupped her hand under my chin and announced loudly and proudly, “I love you.”
The next day she was asleep for the entire visit. My dad and Wil went to the cafeteria to eat, but I wasn’t hungry, so I stayed in the room alone with her.
I took off her glove and held her hand. It was cold. For a long time, I sat in silence wondering how long it had been that they were downstairs eating. I wondered about how maybe Nana had already seen that episode of The Twilight Zone and she wasn’t really a genius after all. I thought about how I would never have one of her world famous peanut-butter-and-jellies again, even though it had already been years since she made one. I guessed it was already too late to ask the truth about her bellybutton.
I gently squeezed her hand. “Hey, you know what, Nana? When I was in 8th grade, you missed the performance of the century. I was Gertrude in Seussical. I can sing you a song if you’d like.”
I fixed up her blankets and sang quietly, since this was a private show: “There once was a girl-bird, named Gertrude McFuzz…”
I had to catch a train back to New York, since spring break was over. I took one last look at the woman who taught me how to write a Z in cursive and left. I never saw her again.
Rachel Petzinger is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her webseries, Dear Rachel, just debuted its second season.
Here is how you embalm a body: first, undress it and lay it down. Massage it carefully. The limbs will become stiff soon and you wouldn’t want them to freeze in an awkward position. Close the eyes and glue them shut. If they look sunken, stuff a little cotton behind the eyelids. Close the mouth. Make an incision under the left clavicle and insert two tubes: one to pump the formaldehyde in, one to drain the blood out. Be sure to get both tubes inserted snugly into major arteries. Begin pumping. The process will take several hours. Keep massaging the limbs and torso to make sure the fluid is evenly distributed. When done, be sure to powder the sewn-up incision with makeup so it doesn't show. Dress the body. Some especially leaky bodies require a plastic layer between the skin and the clothes. Cut the clothes up the back, pull them tight across the chest of the corpse. Make the face up. Do something to the hair.
This, according to late night internet searches I've been making for the past three hours. It might not seem the best thing to be googling late at night, but I couldn't help myself. It’s dark in my room, yellow light from the window casting a dim stripe across my legs. I move a lot when I sleep, tangling the sheets and leaving dark sweat stains. Tonight I woke up dreaming I was at an open-casket funeral; expected, as always, to kneel and pray to the corpse.
The first corpse I saw was Aunt Mary, a distant relative who lived down the South Shore. The undertaker went overboard with the makeup – blue eye shadow, blush, scarlet lipstick. They tried to do up the viewing room to look like a normal home that just happened to have a coffin in it, but the fabric on all the chairs felt antiseptic and scratchy and the wallpaper had a plastic sheen. You were supposed to ascend this little staircase set up next to the coffin, kneel, and say a prayer to the body. I kept my eyes screwed shut until the last "Amen," then opened them and looked at the blank face until my mother's touch pulled me away.
On the way home, some of the family that had driven down together stopped at a fried clam shack off Route 24 in Bridgewater. There were four around the table - my mother, my aunt Ann, our first cousin Ellen, and me. That Loretta Lynn song was playing, "Stand By Your Man." The place had a TV showing college football, glistening cakes rotated in a glass vitrine. The waitresses wore aprons that cut off above the knees.
After a beer or two, Ellen took to talking about her upcoming divorce (Boston accent: more divahhz than divorce). She had enormous breasts that heaved as if to emphasize her speech. Her hair; shiny, black, was cut short and hairsprayed into a glossy, motionless trapezoid.
"He's an asshole," she said. "I married an asshole." Her husband Billy (not the father of her children, that was Jim, who'd died of M.S.), had been cheating on her with the receptionist at the flooring company where he installed tile. Ellen's friend Joanne had told her Billy was running around behind her back. "I know where she lives," Ellen said, "so I got the kids in the car and we went over there to show her the kind of family she's breaking up."
My mother and aunt caught each other's eyes across the table. They had gone to college and married men they met there.
"And we got there," Ellen said, "And Billy's there! In his clothes, thank god, the fucking rat."
"Oh Jesus," my mother said. She gestured at me.
"Well, it's an education," Ellen said. The waitress set three baskets of fried clams down in the middle of the table. "Anyway," she said, "I couldn't very well stay with the cheating bastard so that's that. Asshole." She crunched a clam in her mouth, I got a whiff of cooling fry-oil and perfume.
Ann said, "You did the right thing, babe." I kept my ears open.
"Aunt Mary," Ann went on. "She was a beauty when she was young."
"Yeah," my mother said. "She looked like Sophia Loren or something."
"But the mouth she had!" Ellen said, pushing a basket of clams towards me. I ate one. "Only time I ever heard anyone call someone a fried rat's asshole, that's for sure."
"But she was a looker," Ann said.
"Fat lot of good it did her. Her first husband was a homo, her second husband was in the mob, and her third husband was Jewish."
"Ellen," my mother said, sharply.
"Didn't say he wasn't good to her ‘til he died, the sweet thing," Ellen said.
"The mob?" I asked, perking up.
"Yeah," Ellen said. Big guy named Victor. That would have been around '72-'73, right?"
Ann nodded. "Yeah, must have been. I remember him from when I was about ten."
"He set her up in this big house in Jersey with white carpet," Ellen said. She had diamonds. She showed up to Christmas Eve in a Lincoln."
"Didn't it end with him in jail," my mother asked.
"Yeah," Ellen said. "Dad told me they got him for taxes, but I remember someone drunk on Christmas Eve telling me he shot some guy and threw him in the East River. She and I both. Boy, can we pick'em."
Now, I live by the East River, on the Brooklyn waterfront. Late evenings in summer, the park is breezy, the water silver, the sky orange-pink. The river seems to flow in two directions at once – wavelets on the surface skitter north with the wind, underneath, rolling swells swim towards shore. Where the crests meet, they do a kind of two-step. On the bank, boys with bicycles sit smoking, bored dogs sniff at tall grass; in the background, a three-legged water tower hovers menacingly, looking like a monument aliens might have left rusting, waiting for their return. Black fabric billows loosely off half-finished condo towers.
It was just last night, there, that this latest sleeplessness began. At first, the body just looked like a piece of driftwood or something, a shopping cart, maybe. A fixed-wing plane buzzed overhead, the thing in the water floated closer. I got up, and walked out onto the pier to see what it was.
The thing coalesced into the shape of a person. "Is that someone swimming? Gross." I heard some girls say, smoking cigarettes off the pier railing. Then the chilling, terrible limpness of the arms became visible, the head lolling freely with each swell of the river.
Swollen, distended, blue, the body floated towards me. The man had been muscular, with the body of an athlete, but water had bloated the fingers into fat sausages, pulled the slack skin up off his torso so it twitched nervously with each change in the waves. The distended penis floated on the surface. I heard the girls scream as the body approached the pier feet first, the last thing I saw before it dipped underneath were the eyes – open, green and glassy – and the loose, rotting jaw.
When I was a kid, lying in bed and failing to fall asleep, I looked up at the windows that rose up to my left and imagined strange men trying to break in. I'd have already checked the locks. I usually managed to convince myself that the burglars would be stopped, or at least temporarily immobilized, by the window blinds - how, I thought, could they squeeze through the clanking tin slats without being noticed? Surely by the time they snipped away a kidnapper-sized hole I would have time to scream, to run out into the hall and slam the door behind me. Tonight, I lie awake again, thinking of Aunt Mary’s body in her coffin: lips lined, hair fluffed, cheeks stuffed to unnatural plumpness, fists clenched around a cross. I think of my grandmother, who was cremated; her casket rolling along a conveyor belt into the ovens. I think about how bodies are embalmed, the clinical violence of it. There is nothing to do to a corpse. You stuff it full of chemicals, you burn it, you float it in the river. At least the swimmer kept some fish alive, I think, and then I am asleep, at least until the next morning. You take it day by day by day.
Older Brothers, Pop Punk, and the Flaccid Inevitability of Cool
Oh, the archetypal older brother...
That mansion on the hill of masculinity, that gatekeeper of "cool," the champion and the fuck-up. Older brothers are responsible for a whole litany of the word's passions and sensibilities. Accordingly so, I would not be here today if it weren't for my older brother Alex. Four years my senior, Alex provided a clear picture of success in my preteen mind as he spent his high school years establishing a unique teenage identity for himself, a life that I spent a great amount of time daydreaming about as I pictured myself in his shoes in my own upcoming teen years. All the while I was blissfully unaware of the fact that the whole thing–the scene, sensibilities, and identity for which Alex found himself–would quickly be rendered extinct by the swift tide of popular culture and the frivolous nature of "cool."
You'd be hard pressed to call Alex a nerd. He rode mountain bikes, looked people right in the eye, and his existence had a funny way of inciting freshman girls to write paint pen love notes all over his Nissan Pathfinder. He had friends, lots of them, and some of them even had vaginas. He was voted "Most Attractive" in his senior yearbook; the result of a vigorous campaign by his mischievous friends, but an undeniable testament to his overall popularity regardless. Despite all this, somehow, someway, the climate and sensibilities that defined youth culture in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina from 2003 to 2007 allowed a popular teenager like Alex to spend his weekends moshing at NC Hardcore shows, driving cross state with attractive girls to see bands like Jack's Mannequin, and skanking across dance floors at amateur Ska shows. In a feat made possible by an early preoccupation with Minor Threat, inherent pressure surrounding his status as the first kid out of the gate in our family, and a lingering private school imposed skittishness regarding illicit substances, Alex did it all sober as a whistle.
Alex's friends had an aforementioned Nth wave Ska band called the BFGs. After their occasional shows, Alex and his friends would drive across town to Cookout (North Carolina treasure, Fast Food Mecca, Drive Thru Only) and at least once, he brought me along. I remember sitting in the back seat, sweaty from the physical toll Ska demanded that night, watching him and his friends intently as I dreamed about my turn at the car, the cool friends, the cute girls, and the basement shows. Just then, two of Alex's friends pulled up next to us in their car, triumphantly blasting Brand New's "Seventy Times 7"–quite possibly the best Emo diss song ever–as they passionately shouted lines from the song at Alex, who returned the favor. The same kids had a garage band of their own and they tried out for their high school talent show with a cover of "Seventy Times 7" but were disqualified for that pesky line where Brand New's JesseLacey implores former bandmate/Taking Back Sunday's Syd Barrett, John Nolan, to "have another drink and drive yourself home," and to "think of me when you forget your seatbelt and again when your head goes through the windshield." Brand New was cool. Alex was cool. They were all so fucking cool.
I was thirteen.
Alex showed me who I could be and the Warped Tour showed me who I was. Determined to define myself through the pages of Alternative Press magazine, I spent hours combing forums for New Found Glory b-sides, bee-lining through Borders and Best Buy in search of the CD racks, and sitting alone in my bedroom writing sappy emails of adoration to the members of Yellowcard. All the while, each and every year from age 11 on, I attended the now infamously shitty Vans Warped Tour. Somehow, I had managed to establish my identity through a world that was neither cool nor smart, and I couldn't have cared less. I placed my coveted Fall Out Boy hoodies and macabre Senses Fail t-shirts front row center in each and every single yearbook photo without question. I had somehow found confidence in the individualism afforded to me by one of the biggest rip-off scenes in the history of guitars. The Warped world gave me a confidence that manifested itself in the form of the Taking Back Sunday t-shirts (plural) I wore to school damn near every day and that time I gave the Queen Bee of my 8th grade class Panic! At the Disco's A Fever You Can't Sweat Out for her birthday. Hell, I even dabbled in a Hot Topic studded belt from time to time. Fuck 'em.
When considering the years of my life as a nerd, the years wherein Warped Tour was king, I am disturbed by the warmth of my nostalgia. Despite the fact that my life between the age of eleven and fifteen involved the most self-loathing and alienation I have experienced in my entire life, I have no doubt those years were the purest time of my life as a music fan. Physical media was dying and I was coming alive. Still, the wheel of popular culture moved on and it wasn't soon before I started hanging out with kids who listened to Arcade Fire, unbeknownst to the fact that I was about to truly understand the consequences of cool.
I didn't care much for 2007. The year marked the moment where American Pop Culture in the 2000s finally got the hangover it deserved, facing the repercussions of a half decade spent upholding a pop landscape wherein bands like Fall Out Boy, Green Day, and even Bowling For Soup stood and sold alongside artists like Kelly Clarkson and Justin Timberlake. Sure, The Offspring and Green Day cashed their fair share of checks in the nineties, but we're talking about a time where My Chemical Romance's "Helena" played in dentists' offices for pete's sake. Songs about driving fast in the summer and crying on bloody sleeves got very, very popular which of course lead to them being very, very hated, especially by the nerds of the Indie Rock world. As I was wearing checkered Vans slip-ons to school dances and fighting the good fight without shame, the musicians in my favorite Warped bands–many of whom started out as teenagers themselves–were nervously changing their sound, style, and haircuts in a desperate attempt to combat the critical cries of sad nerdy music critics. Despite all the exasperated tears and emotional anthems the scene churned out over the years, every artist seemed dead set on finally becoming "serious." New Found Glory replaced screeching synths and snotty kiss-off anthems with Benmont Tench assisted lounge piano ditties. Brand New, a band once capable of producing a line like "drop me like a brick off a rooftop of your high school," left the overpasses, mix tapes, and magazines of Long Island in favor of making The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, a record as bloated and disingenuous as its title. The scene upon which I formulated my entire identity had become such an embarrassment that its own leaders rejected it publicly in the form of the "serious" follow up record, a feat only ever really pulled off with integrity by Blink-182.
For a year or two I eschewed new albums entirely, floating in a purgatory of endless listens of Catch-22's Keasbey Nights. At fifteen, I felt like I had voluntarily tied myself to the mast of a sinking ship, blind with loyalty and devotion, only to witness the captain abandon his helm entirely in order to spend his time churning out half-assed murky instrumental explorations of white dude existentialism. As I stared into the incoming abyss, I wondered how cold the water would be, realizing my fate was plainly due to my steadfast allegiance to the ship, the scene, the whole thing that almost every single person in my life found childish and irksome. Icy water lapped my face as the tidal wave of high school social life rose in front of me yet still, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what people saw in those bearded mopes in Fleet Foxes.
There's another kind of older brother. The kind who read James Joyce recreationally, identifies "cool" as a product of inaction rather than action, and considers the preservation of good taste within the family to be an imperative, damn near an heirloom of self-respect that was worth fighting for. That was Graeme for ya. Three years older than his brother (and my best friend) Harrison, Graeme made it through Dylan's discography before leaving for college and his teenage angst was soundtracked by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. One time I was sleeping over at their house and he woke me up in the middle of the night to hand me a Dave Eggers piece about The Flaming Lips and the concept of "selling out," inexplicably printed out and delivered to me for reasons that were and are beyond my comprehension. Years later in my twenties, I asked Graeme about the incident and he couldn't recall it ever happening. He never seemed to care much for me and in those years I never knew what to make of him. But to Harrison–my best friend and his baby brother–he was fucking cool.
No one wants to hear what the guy in the Motion City Soundtrack shirt has to say about Sufjan Stevens. For me, this lesson became strikingly clear upon entrance to high school as I surrounded myself with timid proto-Hipsters like Harrison and confidently asserted things like "Arcade Fire sounds like U2 recorded through a bathroom wall and I really fucking hate U2." I would say that I spent that year fighting with Harrison about records like Funeral, Come On Feel the Illinoise, For Emma Forever Ago, and Ragged Wood, but typically arguments need more than one participant. He valued my opinion of his music just as much as he valued my music, meaning not at all, which wouldn't have been an issue had I not valued his opinion on absolutely everything more than anyone else's in the world. For months, I stood fast behind the "Arcade Fire is bathroom wall music" position, a sensibility linked to both my fondness for the lyrical specificity of pop-punk and aversion to the mounds of reverb that laced Indie Rock at that (and most) times. Perhaps I was fumbling with the wiring Alex installed within me years before, trying to hear past the unfortunate echoes of what was formally cool.
Then one night it snowed in our sleepy Southern town and I trudged through the moonlit roads to the tune of Arcade Fire's "Tunnels." It was beautiful and I felt like an asshole. Yeah, it was bathroom music but that wasn't going to keep me from sitting on the pot a little longer. I considered forgetting all about my attraction to "Tunnels," bunny hopping over the rabbit hole, renewing my Alternative Press subscription for life, and getting a nautical star tattoo the moment I turned 18. You see I was scared to admit I was wrong, scared to give up power to Harrison's taste, and scared to abandon the musical world that made me who I was.
But I didn't forget about it. I returned again and again and soon devouring the whole record. This snowy moment and the weeks that followed marked my first formal introduction to indie rock, a world immediately defined by controlling feelings of perceived ignorance and the corresponding guilt and shame they create. I wore Funeral down and quickly began gathering some opinions on other hip records at the time: Bon Iver (sleepy but not boring) and Sufjan Stevens (wordy, weepy, reminded me of Forgive Durden's Wonderland). Proud of the hard listening I had put in, I went to Harrison and began our first of many shop talks. Like a dentist trying to talk shop with a doctor at a dinner party, I engaged Harrison sloppily. He humored me, opting to reply not with antagonism but with watered down discourse. I felt like an idiot but it felt good to fit in again. That night, we drove with our friends around town, down the same streets Alex did to "Seventy Times 7," except now "Rebellion (Lies)" played and I sang along in the backseat.
Surprisingly, Hipsterdom at seventeen actually offered me the same freedoms and independence I had witnessed in a teenage Alex. Harrison's voracious taste and commandeering influence turned his trash-laden BMW into a classroom, offering lessons on '60s Soul, Bowie, Animal Collective, "96 Tears," LCD Soundsystem, Clipse, Deerhunter, My Bloody Valentine, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr, and the untouchable Pet Sounds. We spent countless hours driving cross state to see bands at Carrboro's Cats Cradle and Asheville's The Orange Peel. Years after the BFGs were defunct, my own high school friends started a garage band called Graham & The Crackers and managed to book some local shows, covering songs we loved like Twin Shadow's "Forget," and Phoenix's "1901," and drawing a significantly less raucous crowd in the same venues my brother skanked about in.
Although Harrison's taste was my north star of sorts, I did manage to find some of my own musical loves during those years. Drawing upon my Warped predisposition for the loud and the snotty, I poured over records like Jay Reatard's Blood Visions, unlocked mixtape rap with Lil Wayne's Da Drought 3, and came full circle with my pop-punk past via Wavves' King of The Beach. I grew to approach my scene kid shame by out right pretending the Warped Tour never happened. I bought Vampire Weekend t-shirts and frequented Good Will, leaving the merch table purchased punk shirts that comprised the entirety of my wardrobe for years untouched on my shelves. After four years and a couple tense moments–most notably a drunken spat over who "discovered" Illmatic first–me and Harrison's strict power dynamic, that master/pupil relationship, faded. I might not know more than him but I knew what was cool, cool enough for the two of us.
As far as I was concerned, Graeme and his subsequent influence on Harrison were a far cry from Alex's brotherly influence on myself. Maybe it was Alex's fault for the identity issues I suffered at the hand of cool growing up. Graeme was preternaturally opposed to the kind of loud, sleezy, whiny, youthful amateur hour culture upon which Alex built his entire independence. He taught Harrison to be a discerning listener, to begin a life-long dig in search of hidden classics within the annals of popular music, and to value taste above all. This gentle brotherly air of musical supremacy may have saved Harrison from the four MxPx albums I bought in the 2000s. It certainly kept him from the Hawthorne Heights show I went to in lieu of a school dance when I was thirteen. However, if given a chance to go back and do it again, I wouldn't change a goddamn thing.
Alex introduced me to the singular pleasure of belonging–sweat drenched and hoarse–amongst a community of individuals bound by nothing more than unquestionable love of somebody else's noise. Harrison introduced me to the treacherous reality of belonging that lies in the the inevitable exclusionary element that occurs when those on the inside confront those looking in. Years later, the whole thing looks silly. Pitchfork is writing articles about the absolute uncoolness of Sufjan Stevens. The biggest DJ in the world in the world is the kid from From First to Last. Tide comes in, tide comes out, and this lesson in cool made me realize that as long as it feels good, it is good. This ethos was delivered through mosh pits and side-swiped bangs and directly led to my love of both pop and dance music. Never again will I whole-heartedly define myself through the taste and sensibilities of another, not a big brother, a best friend, or a band, for that feeling of belonging that leads one to a scene or identity can be beautiful and all encompassing but it is always inevitably fragile. What Alex could have never taught me was the treacherous part of belonging that lies in the inevitable exclusion of those who don't belong. I had to come upon this realization myself through harsh experience from the inside and outside of a scene, an experience specific to my passage through the Warped world that would have been completely absent had I been cool since day one, reared on Brian Eno straight out of the womb. All the studded belts, Hot Topic trips, Senses Fail t-shirts, and Warped Tour dates meant something. As important as punk was for the creation of my personal identity, this failure of cool was even more integral. The wheel of pop culture moves on and the coolest thing I can do is take it all in.
When one thinks of the Weimar Republic, images of cabaret, women in short haircuts and pencil skirts come to mind. The New Woman was also represented in these images and is almost synonymous with the era itself. While many artists of the Weimar Republic criticized and challenged the political and cultural assumptions of the Weimar Republic, very few called the idea of the New Woman into question. Hannah Höch was a German artist active during the Weimar Republic, whose photomontages critique and question the role of the New Woman in German society. Combing through the rapidly expanding popular print culture in German, Höch’s photomontages and other projects during the Weimar Republic simultaneously challenge German culture and society’s perception of women.
After the armistice ended the First World War, it became easier for artists to travel around the continent. One of those artists, Richard Huelsenbeck, returned to Berlin from Zürich and brought with him the spirit of Dada. The Zurich Dadaists’ interest in Cubism and Futurism, the spirit of confrontation and experimentation, and their enthusiasm for performance and spectacle found a new audience in the turbulent German capital. Calling themselves Club Dada, rising and later famous artists—such as George Grosz, John Heartfield, Wieland Herzfelde, Johannes Baader, and Raoul Hausmann—collaborated on publications and exhibitions.
These artists, however, lived in a more politically radical environment than the sleepy town of Zürich. The armistice was only the beginning of a long and arduous transition of power within Germany. Kaiser Wilhem II had abdicated the throne and fled the capital shortly before the armistice was signed and the much of the Navy had already mutinied. Major cities across the nation, including Berlin, were beginning to be controlled by councils of mutinying sailors and soldiers. The workers and sailors council in Berlin was one of the strongest, and it was led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, co-founders of the German Communist Party (KPD).
Club Dada was mostly comprised of Communist party members or artists with communist sympathies. Höch was part of the latter group. Regardless, all members felt their hopes shattered and already betrayed by the new republic. Höch herself described a “feeling of alienation” as a driving force for the political and acerbic art that the Club Dada produced between 1917 and 1922.1 These exhibitions culminated in the 1920 exhibit titled, “The First International Dada Fair” (“Die Erste Internationale Dada-Messe”) from June 30th to August 25th of that year. They constructed sculptures out of found materials and propaganda posters with nonsense slogans. Most importantly, they experimented with the newly invented medium called “photomontage.”
Nearly every member of Club Dada claimed to have invented photomontage, but Richard Huelsenbeck, the unofficial historian of the Dadaists, supports Hannah Höch’s description of how she and Raoul Hausmann invented the practice.2 While on a vacation with Hausmann in the Baltic, they noticed many of the mothers and widows of the town had small, postcard-sized paintings of men in uniform. Where the painted head should have been, however, was cut out and replaced with a photograph of a son or husband pasted onto the paper. This mixing of mediums fascinated the pair, who began experimenting while still on their vacation.
The major themes and characteristics of Hannah Höch’s photomontage work were established early in her career during the Dada years. This is not to say that she remained trapped in a certain style or that she did not develop after the Dadaists disbanded in 1922, but rather that her Dada works establish common themes such as androgyny, satire, and popular mass-media imagery that continue to play a significant role in understanding her oeuvre throughout the decades following. Höch’s most famous work, Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser Dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands (Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany) (1919) (Figure 1), was exhibited at First International Dada Fair in 1920 and one of the best examples of Höch’s early mastery of the photomontage medium. The salacious and long title propagates the agenda of the photomontage - to use the sharp weapon of montage and Dada critique to attack the fat, bourgeois gut of the new Weimar Republic. Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser maps out the “Dada” and “Anti-Dada” forces in the new Weimar Republic in a swirling circular diorama. The “Anti-Dada” elements in the top right corner of the photomontage are surrounded by the “Dada” on the bottom right below them.
The abundance of newspaper clippings and photographs from which Hannah Höch was able to choose during the Weimar Republic reflected a cultural shift in journalism. After World War I, Germany experienced a publishing boom. Advances in technology made cameras lighter and photographs easier to develop. The largest of the post-war publishers was Ullstein Verlag, who had the widest circulated and most influential newsmagazine, Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung (BIZ). By 1930, BIZ had a national circulation within Germany of 1.85 million copies, with its nearest competitor’s highest circulation hovering around less than a million copies.3 The popularity of the BIZ was due mostly to the abundance of photographs in its pages. With the technology to mass produce photographs, the whole German population consumed them in abundance. At the time, photographs were considered at least as important as the content of the story—if not more important than the stories to which they were attached. This philosophy would later influence and shape other publications such as LIFE magazine in the United States. Höch understood the power of the quantity of images and exploited them for their familiarity and impact. She notes, “that the image impact of an article - for example, a gentleman’s collar - could produce a stronger impression if a photograph of one of them were taken, cut out, and ten such cut-out collars were just laid on a table and a photograph made of them.”4 Repetition and unique arrangements drew the eye and the attention of both readers of magazines and patrons of art galleries. BIZ was a consistent source of photographic material for Hannah Höch’s photomontage, most likely because her employment at Ullstein Verlag made it easy for her to obtain copies of the company’s publications. There were three major types of photographs that Höch sampled from this publication: candid political photographs, ethnographic photo-reportage, and advertisements.
The power and influence of Ullstein Verlag was buoyed by the many smaller and more specialized news magazines that it published alongside BIZ. Die Dame (The Lady) sought to create a market for the working Weimar woman, who made up around 35 percent of the working population by 1925.5 The articles and advertisements of Die Dame frequently featured idealized photographs of the New Woman, especially bourgeois iterations of this idealized type. Höch most certainly would have seen these depictions of women in the print media, because Höch worked at Ullstein Verlag shortly after her arrival to Berlin in the late 1910s and worked for Die Dame as a pattern designer for the clothing section of the publication. Höch even used these patterns in her collages in the early 1920s, and some of the patterns might even have been of her own design.
Androgyny, a common identifier of the New Woman, and political satire went hand-in-hand in Höch’s photomontages and play a prominent role in Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser. Within the “Anti-Dada” corner of the photomontage is World War I war hero General Field Marshall Friedrich von Hindenburg, but his head rests upon the body of a modern dancer, identified by Maud Lavin to be Sent M’ahesa.6 Other political figures, such as President Ebert, are also depicted in this way. Ebert is identified by his goatee and his head has been transplanted onto the body of a topless dancer. Höch renders these serious masculine figures of authority and power both silly and using allusion to the New Woman to call their manliness and power into question. The establishment of the Weimar Republic led to a shifting of the German culture to a more liberal one. The shortage of men after the war led to an influx in the number of working women in Germany. Many of these female laborers began wearing more masculine clothes and cutting their hair shorter, creating an androgynous look that became synonymous to the New Woman in Weimar Germany.7 Jula Dech sums up this transition well: “Taboos of sexual deviancy were thrown out with the Wilhelmine corset. Homosexuality, transvestism, and bisexuality were discussed often in the new republic and, at least in the large cities, practiced.”8 Dech also mentions the psychoanalytic notion proposed by Otto Weininger and Magnus Hirschfeld of “das dritte Geschecht” or the third sex.9 This theory of the third sex argued that there was an inherent sexuality that, like the androgynous dress of the New Woman, combined characteristics of both the male and female genders into one body.10 This sexual liberation and experimentation was something that Höch not only commented on in her work, but also in which she participated. She was part of this new movement of female labor as a pattern designer at Ullstein Verlag, she dressed in a more gender-ambiguous manner, and (as mentioned above) she had a romantic relationship with the female Dutch poet, Til Brugman, from 1926 until 1935. For the male politicians, this androgyny most certainly emasculated them, because being associated with the androgynous ideal of the New Woman was probably not something they desired or made them look powerful to the traditional bourgeois. The style that gives power to the Weimar woman takes power away from the men in charge. This photomontage demonstrates well not only how Höch used photomontage and mass culture to criticize society, but also how Höch is actively thinking about the relationship between mass culture and its ideas about women of the Weimar Republic.
After a period of only a few photomontages depicting women, Hannah Höch began collecting images in 1926 to serve as future source material and inspiration. This Scrapbook (figure 2) is a collection of photographs taken nearly exclusively from Ullstein Verlag publications such as BIZ and Die Dame. She collected the photographs over time, deciding the order and creating the book in 1933 by pasting the photos into an issue of Die Dame.11 The Scrapbook’s themes are pulled from the mass media and suggest, “how Weimar women, particularly those who like Höch considered themselves to be New Women, may have interpreted New Woman stereotypes.”12 Unlike her previous photomontages, all of the images in the Scrapbook exist in their entirety. None of the images are violated or cut; they are arranged neatly side by side without overlapping or obstructing one another.
Many pages of the Scrapbook, such as those in figure 3, show how Höch montages images of Western women and women of non-Western cultures explore how print culture treats the idea of the New Woman. As one can see in the facing pages of the Scrapbook in Figure 2, Höch connects images from Ullstein publications from Germany’s former colonies, a common feature of Weimar newsmagazines, to the New Woman. Although not all of the women in these photographs are nude, the nudity of the white woman in the bottom left corner is connected across the page to her African counterparts in the other images. Höch decontextualizes an erotic photograph by juxtaposing it to ethnographic images of nude women. These same associations between Weimar women and foreign subjects are made on other pages that connect more explicitly to images of the New Woman that inhabit Höch’s Dada photomontages such as Schnitt mit Küchenmesser.13 Modern dancers on the left page of figure 3 and a photograph of the burlesque dancer are placed with photos of a Balinese child dancing in a trance and two sumo wrestlers in a pose that resembles a tango. The short hair, the nudity of the burlesque dancer, and the freedom of movement are representations of the New Woman that Höch connects to the non-Western women and ideas of the Scrapbook. By placing these obvious identifiers of the New Woman, the modern dancer with short hair, side-by-side with these exotic photographs, Höch equates her ideas about the New Woman with the otherness of non-Western cultures. Even though it may seems as if women were liberated in the 1920s, Höch shows that she feels the idea of the New Woman is divorced from her actual lived experience as a woman in German society, and that she herself doesn’t feel like a New Woman.
These associations between exotic women and cultures and the New Woman became important in works such as Denkmal I (1924, Figure 4), an early work in the series Aus einem ethnographischen Museum. The standing figure is a photomontage integrating both the ethnographic and the female imagery that might have been found in a publication such as Die Dame. The head and torso appear to be taken from separate African statues and photomontaged together, and the figure has an arm with a balled-up fist that appears to be of an African person of unknown gender. The legs of the figure in Denkmal I are taken from images of Western women - the left a ballerina slipper and the right an inverted arm bent at the elbow. The elbow is the top of the leg with both the forearm and the upper arm extending down. The hand and fingers of the arm extend the furthest down, as if it were a foot extending out in a dance-like pose, connecting it to this repeated trope of the New Woman as a dancer.
Her choice in ethnographic material and the style in which she frames her works in Aus einem ethnographischen Museum indicate that she was focusing on how the framing of a work contextualizes or changes the context of a work. The bottom of Denkmal I has a black rhombus that appears as if it is a base or a pedestal for the photomontage above it. A framing device such as a pedestal appears in several other members of the Aus einem ethnographischen Museum series. These pedestals create the context for the museum that the title of the series implies, that these works are being exhibited in a pedagogical context for education and instruction, not for religious or social function. Instead, this photomontaged object is placed on a pedestal and treated as a Western object d’art, obstructing or preventing an true understanding of the object. This fragmentation of the context for the work is reflected in the photomontage itself, which combines disparate images to create a new whole. In many cases in Höch’s work, including Denkmal I, the composite of the photomontage is something grotesque and unnatural in appearance. The grotesque object on the pedestal creates a contradiction, “The base, which traditionally presents the wholeness and perfection of an object on display, is used by Höch in these works as a pedestal for her fragmentary, grotesque, and sometimes humorous montages of multicultural fragments.”14 Höch presents a sculpture in this photomontage that is broken and ugly, a critique of her ethnographic and New Woman subject similar to that expressed in the Scrapbook, but not yet an explicit condemnation.
Marlene, 1930 (Figure 5), is an example of the stronger stance Höch takes against Weimar culture by the end of the decade. By combining the base of a column and a pair of bare legs, Höch creates a sexual obelisk, at which the men in the lower right corner stare and cat call under the sun of a smiling woman's face. The presentation of the female figure remains important from Denkmal I. The legs are removed from their original context - the person to whom they belong - and are placed on a pedestal. This juxtaposition of men ogling a pair of legs without a body or a face to accompany allows Höch to reveal the imbalance of male and female representation in the media. Although women gained a larger role in society during the Weimar Republic, Höch remains unsatisfied with the progress of society in which the New Woman is objectified in the sex symbols of the time, such as Marlene Dietrich, a film actress that Höch alludes to here by name.15 The smiling lips in the top right corner appear to smile down approvingly on this scene, perhaps indicating the approval of the media on this type of objectification. The female subjects of Höch’s photomontage work only represented printed representations of women, but with the allusion to Dietrich, Höch’s critique expands to film, the other main engine of Weimar mass culture.
The use of images of the New Woman such as the dancers in Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser, the African and Oceanic photographs that Höch associates with the alienation she feels towards the idea of the New Woman, and their use within the photomontages of the late Weimar Republic indicate an increasing skepticism on Höch’s part to any actual change in women’s roles and freedom in society. Much like the main character of Irmgard Keun’s novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, Höch realizes that one is more likely to find the New Woman in the pages of Die Dame, on stage at a cabaret, or the film Der blaue Engel than in the actual streets of Berlin.
Höch quoted in Taylor, Brandon. Collage: The Making of Modern Art. New York: Thames. 47. (Back)
Makela, Maria. “By Design: The Early Work of Hannah Höch in Context.” The Photomontages of Hannah Höch. Germany: Cantz. 1996. 59. (Back)
Lavin, Maud. Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. 51. (Back)
Höch, Hannah. “A Few Words on Photomontage.” Art of the Twentieth Century: A Reader. ed. Jason Gaiger and Paul Wood. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003. 113. Print. (Back)
Lavin, 4 (Back)
Lavin, 19 (Back)
Peukert, Detlev J.K. The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993. 96. (Back)
Dech, Jula. Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser Dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands. Berlin: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1989. 62. “Mit dem wilhelminischen Korsett werden auch die Tabus abgeworfen, mit denen sexuelle Abweichungen bis dahin strikt belegt sind. Homosexualität, Transvestitentum, Bisesualität, werden in der neuen Republik relative offen diskutiert und - zumindest in den Metropolen - auch praktiziert.” (Back)
Dech, 62 (Back)
Lavin 186 (Back)
Lavin, 73 (Back)
Lavin, 74 (Back)
Lavin, 75 (Back)
Lavin, 163 (Back)
Lavin, 185 (Back)
Dech, Jula. Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser Dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands. Berlin: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1989. 62.
Höch, Hannah. “A Few Words on Photomontage.” Art of the Twentieth Century: A Reader. ed. Jason Gaiger and Paul Wood. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003.
Lavin, Maud. Cut with the Kitchen Knife : The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Makela, Maria. “By Design: The Early Work of Hannah Höch in Context.” The Photomontages of Hannah Höch. Germany: Cantz. 1996.
Peukert, Detlev J.K. The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993.
Taylor, Brandon. Collage: The Making of Modern Art. New York: Thames.
Thomas Baldwin is an editor for Things Created By People and currently has almost no social media presence.
In Dolly Parton’s classic song “Coat of Many Colors,” she sings of a do-it-yourself garment her poverty-stricken mother made her back during the “seasons of [her] youth.”
I recall a box of rags that someone gave us
And how my momma put the rags to use.
There were rags of many colors, and every piece was small,
And I didn’t have a coat, and it was way down in the fall,
Momma sewed the rags together, sewing every piece with love,
She made my coat of many colors that I was so proud of.
Parton sings about how her mother likened the coat to Joseph’s coat of many colors from the Bible, and later of how the kids at school laughed at her upon arrival. Yet Parton stayed strong, informing them that, “one is only poor, only if they choose to be.”
In many ways, the narrative told within the song is indicative of the sewed together package that has made Dolly Parton an unlikely gay icon of sorts: pride, mockery, pride in the face of mockery, all due to a non-consistent, multi-layered, cheap and colorful object. Parton has connected to a variety of queer fans—from gay men, to lesbians, to drag queens, and beyond, and Parton’s queer appeal, like her coat of many colors, is stitched together from many different fabrics.
During the 2006 Kennedy Center Honors, Dolly Parton sat firm and proud. She watched, smiling, as country music superstars sang her praises one after the other. A standard loop of Parton’s country devotees covered her classics: Shania Twain with “Coat of Many Colors,” Carrie Underwood joining Parton’s original duet partner Kenny Rogers for a rendition of “Islands in the Stream,” Allison Kraus with “Jolene.” Somewhere within this mix, though, something peculiar happened. Pop star Jessica Simpson took the stage to sing Dolly Parton’s soundtrack anthem “9 to 5.” Simpson was the only performer there outside of the country music genre. She had, of course, been a competitor in the pop boxing ring, battling it out with the likes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
Simpson flubbed Parton’s lyrics and later asked to have her tribute removed from the special before it aired on CBS. This moment, though, becomes interesting when examining it in the context of Dolly Parton’s own career, particularly in the early eighties. At the time of Parton’s Kennedy Center Honors, Simpson was in the midst of a career makeover: she was a little over a year away from releasing her first country album in 2008, after recording it in Nashville, the exact town in which Parton made it big. It’s hard not to see her performance at Dolly Parton’s tribute as part of a career strategy, just like it’s hard not to see the trajectory of Dolly’s film roles circa 1980 as part of a career strategy: Parton was starring in her first feature film, Nine to Five, alongside Hollywood actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, had left the Nashville country music circuit to work with pop producers, and was gaining mainstream exposure left and right. “From Dollywood to Hollywood!” she would later exclaim while performing at the 2006 Academy Awards, and this moment in her career represents just that. The difference between Jessica Simpson’s move toward country and Dolly Parton’s move toward mass-exposure and pop is that Dolly Parton portrayed herself as both hyperaware and willing to discuss this career move as just that—a career move.
“I carry a gun, and she carries a gun in the picture!”: Dolly as Camp
This openness is one of the many reasons why Parton’s film career exposed her to the possibility of being a “gay icon.” As an actress, Parton was not cast to play different roles, but rather, to portray Dolly Parton if Dolly Parton had a different life. This isn’t an insult, or even an assessment of which she isn’t aware herself. In her 1980 Rolling Stone cover story, Parton laughed about the techniques of the more serious actors on set of Nine to Five, saying:
It’s funny how everyone gets into character. I’ve never had an acting lesson in my life... I was lucky in the respect that they had written it according to my personality; I carry a gun, and she carries a gun in the picture! She was really just me as a secretary, so I played it like that.
Examining Parton’s filmography as merely an expansion upon her true self, then, viewers and fans get not a collection of parts Parton became, but rather, parts that became Dolly. So when these roles involved something like camp, Parton herself became camp.
In his essay “The Cinema of Camp (Aka Camp and the Gay Sensibility),” Jack Babuscio sets out to describe what “camp” means and why it connects so successfully to gay audiences. He writes of the notion of a “gay sensibility,” something that camp—“never a thing or person per se, but rather, a relationship between activities, individuals, situations, and gayness”—aligns itself with, therefore relating to the lives of queer people, despite not being explicit. He writes:
I define the gay sensibility as a creative energy reflecting a consciousness that is different from the mainstream; a heightened awareness of certain human complications of feeling that spring from the fact of social oppression; in short, a perception of the world which is coloured, shaped, directed, and defined by the fact of one’s gayness.
He goes on to assign camp four basic principles that create this layered atmosphere: irony, aestheticism, theatricality, and humor. In regards to irony, Babuscio writes, “Camp is ironic insofar as an incongruous contrast can be drawn between an individual/thing and its context/association.” This, he argues, appeals to the gay sensibility because, “The inner knowledge of our unique social situation has produced in us a heightened awareness of the discrepancies that lie between appearance and reality, expression and meaning.”
In Nine to Five, Parton plays Dora Lee, the sexy secretary of misogynist boss Franklin Hart. She befriends coworkers Violet (played by Lily Tomlin) and Judy (played by Jane Fonda) after they realize she hasn’t been sleeping with Franklin, as he’s claimed. One scene from Nine to Five in particular is interesting because it takes up over fifteen minutes of the film without seeming to move the plot along whatsoever. It involves Parton, Tomlin, and Fonda smoking a joint that Tomlin’s character previously confiscated from her son and, very stoned, fantasizing about the ways they’d like to get back at their evil boss. The film gives each of their fantasies an elaborate daydream sequence, and Parton’s involves creating a reverse situation to the one Dora Lee actually lives in: she becomes Hart’s boss and he becomes her prey. At the end of her fantasy, the office turns into a rodeo, Parton as the cowboy and Hart as the cattle. She ropes him (as he desperately tries to escape her office) in “Five seconds! Just five seconds, folks!” the rodeo announcer marvels.
This is a textbook example of what Babuscio is referring to with his “incongruous contrasts.” Parton’s scene sets up a fantasy: one in which she, as a female secretary, becomes the boss of the man that actually holds power over her. On top of this, her fantasy is accomplished in a distinctly Dolly Parton way: she’s a cowboy. This segment of the film also functions as camp based on what Babuscio says about the gay sensibility and humor:
Camp can thus be a means of undercutting rage by its derision of concentrated bitterness. Its vision of the world is comic. Laughter, rather than tears, is its chosen means of dealing with the painfully incongruous situation of gays in society.
These women, having been subjected to extreme sexism in the workplace, and now existing in the same house discussing it, represent this “concentrated bitterness.” Yet Nine to Five chooses to have them toke up and get giggly, instead of complain in anger.
“That’s what I wanna be, Mama! I wanna be trash!”: Dolly as Queer
With Dolly Parton bringing her raw self to each role, being strikingly honest and candid in every interview she gives, and generally operating as prideful in the way she looks, dresses, and acts, she becomes a “fully out” individual. When asked about constructing her image on British talk show Parkinson in 2007, Parton responded by explaining her inspiration: a social outcast from her childhood. “I really patterned my look, a real country girl’s idea of glamour, after what they call the ‘town tramp,” she starts to explain before the audience erupts into laughter. She continues:
You know they have them in a mountain town, there’s always a few loose women. But this woman—I thought was beautiful. She had this beautiful peroxide hair piled on her head, and red nails, high-heeled shoes. And I just thought she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. And mama said, “Oh, she ain’t nothing but trash!” So, I thought, “that’s what I wanna be, Mama! I wanna be trash!”
Parton’s version of glamour lies within a social outcast of her conservative hometown. Here is a woman who feels her most beautiful when dolled up as what society considers “trash.” Dolly Parton may be straight, but she is certainly non-normative in her image, and very proudly so. Part of Dolly Parton’s on-screen excitement for queer people is that she represents the idea that a straight person, when fully “out” as an individual, can queer any situation in which she’s placed. She is a queering agent.
One of the best moments to illustrate this comes with her next film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). Parton plays Mona, the Madam of a small Texas town whorehouse, who has continued an ongoing affair with the town sheriff Ed Earl (played by Burt Reynolds). The whorehouse is treated as something largely void of controversy; everyone seems to know its purpose and enjoy its services (“Right from the beginning, the little house was kind of special, like a home away from home,” our narrator explains with glee). It isn’t until it becomes the subject of a statewide broadcast by sensationalist newscaster Melvin P. Thorpe that anyone seems to argue there is anything abnormal or amoral about it. On top of this, the town sheriff, an archetype usually in charge of maintaining order and moral code within a conservative southern environment like this, is sleeping with the exact woman running the whorehouse. And on top of that, he’s also seeing another woman, a relationship Mona calls his “in-town wife,” more public and acceptable than his “secret” relationship with her. Furthermore, the majority of the town seems to know about Ed Earl and Madam’s affair, and simply doesn’t care. When Melvin P. Thorpe comes along to shoot a special on the town’s amorality for allowing such rampant sin via the whorehouse, the town’s inhabitants anxiously await the Sheriff’s arrival to run Thorpe out of the town (and they cheer when he does so successfully.)
Here we have a film about the inhabitants of a small town in Texas cheering for and siding withthe rampant prostitution right under their noses. This is a certainly a non-normative environment, or at least non-normative portrayal of a standard setting. And Dolly Parton, likeability on fleek, pretty much runs this town (in one of her first scenes, she’s donating to the Little League fund and is praised for her continued generosity to the town: “The town council will probably vote you another plaque!” Parton responds: “I hope not, I got a closet full of them now!”) She is the glue that holds the queer non-normative environment together, and keeps it operating as such. Like with Nine to Five, Parton knows she’s been asked to play the “Madam” version of herself:
I’ve often said… that I honestly do look like a whore or a high-class prostitute, not even so much high-class with the makeup and the bleached hair and the boobs and the tight-fittin’ clothes and heels. [Madame Mona] was everything that I am, except that I’m not a whore. But if I hadn’t made it in this business, who knows?
Parton also gets another chance to emasculate her men. In their first scene together, Dolly Parton reveals she has purchased Burt Reynolds a new type of underwear she’d like for him to wear when they engage in foreplay. “What the hell is this, a Japanese slingshot?” Sheriff Ed Earl asks. Parton responds: “No, it’s jockey shorts with little silver snaps on the side!” Parton’s character is already acting in a non-normative way, as the “buying of sexy underwear for a partner to wear” scene in cinema usually plays the other way, with the male gifting lingerie to the woman. Sheriff Ed Earl staunchly refuses to wear them for a long time until Parton exclaims, “Well fine! Then I’m getting dressed and going home!” to which he immediately responds, “Well fine, I’m going to the bathroom and…trying these on,” he sighs, “It’ll be like putting two bowling balls in a marble bag.” Parton responds, unimpressed: “Braggin’, braggin’.”
Parton and her prostitutes are never slut-shamed at all during this film, except by the disgraced outsider, and once by Sherriff himself (who calls Madam Mona a “whore” in a heated argument) but this is treated as his ultimate mistake, he hates himself for it, and eventually delivers a sincere apology. This is progressive and sexy. This town is a southern, sex-positive atmosphere where the prostitutes enjoy their work and homosocial camaraderie with each other, the men pay and treat them fairly, and there is no shame to be found within the confines of consensual bedroom playtime. When, in her first number on screen, Parton explains the whorehouse, singing, “there’s nothing dirty going on,” she’s not denying that sex is occurring behind closed doors, she’s simply denying that that is “dirty” in some way.
“Drag Queen, Drag Queen, Drag Queen, Drag Queen, I’m Begging of You Please Don’t Take My Man”: Dolly as Ally
In Parton’s Rolling Stone cover story, writer Chet Flippo asked her, “What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever done?” Parton tells a story about how after rehearsal one day, she and her friend Judy were riding home in cars driving parallel to each other and they began engaging in some girlish fun. “Anyhow, I just pulled up my shirt and I flashed them with one of them. Well, they just about wrecked because they thought it was so funny…so the next time around, I mooned them!” Then, still unsatisfied with the extent they’d outdone each other, at the next stop sign, Dolly ran around the cars stark naked, laughing in the moonlight.
This relationship with Judy and the fact that her husband of forty-six years acts more as a looming fact more than an actual partner the public ever sees are two of the reasons that many have questioned Dolly’s sexuality. In a 1977 interview with Parton, Barbara Walters asked about her marriage, “What about when you’re on the road weeks at a time? No temptations?” Dolly responded:
[My husband Carl Dean is] the kind of person and I’m the kind of person that if, by being apart, we were to meet somebody, I would never tell him. He would never know and it would never hurt him. And it’s the same way with him. I wouldn’t want to know it. As long as he loves me and as long as he’s good to me… I don’t think that it matters. I’ve got better things to do than sit in my room and wonder, "Oh, what’s Carl doing tonight?"
This may be the closest a country star from small town Tennessee in 1977 can get to describing an open marriage without invoking severe controversy. And this behavior hasn’t gone unnoticed (or un-queered). In Jean Carlomusto’s documentary L Is For The Way You Look (1991), a group of gay women recount a time when they saw Dolly Parton at a primarily lesbian function. They tell the story with such detail and excitement, each adding their perspective as if any missing detail from the previous installment of the story was the most vital part. This sort of wishful thinking makes perfect sense; Dolly Parton being an openly queer person would be something of extreme excitement for queer people. She’s a country music star. She’s a Christian. Parton being a lesbian would complicate her entire personhood, making her a queer Christian body.
In Queering Christ: Outrageous Acts and Theological Rebellions, Lisa Isherwood writes, “The queer Christian body is a transgressive signifier of radical equality.” She continues:
It attempts to subvert the weight of patriarchy upon it through counter cultural actions. This body lives in the world but is not chained by its narrow definitions and hierarchical power systems. It is a body that acts stubbornly in the face of life as it is, and is a space in which creative rebellion is rooted in the everyday business of life. In the language of Christianity, it is a redemptive space.
It is here in examining Parton’s religion and its history with queer people that we come across a complicated fact: she is a fierce ally to the gay community. “Well I think the gay people have always liked me because I’ve always been myself, I’m not intimidated by how people perceive me, I don’t judge or criticize people…I think all people have the right to be who they are, we’re all God’s children and God should be the one to judge,” Parton says after being asked about her gay appeal on Larry King Live. One of her favorite stories to tell in interviews is the time that she entered a Dolly Parton drag contest, exaggerated her various beauty marks and makeup, then received last place. In one concert, she dedicated perhaps her most acclaimed song “Jolene” to her drag queen fans, telling a story about how they were hitting on her band one day before the show, temporarily changed the words to “Drag queen, drag queen, drag queen, drag queen, I’m begging of you please don’t take my man.”
This spirit exists in the same body as a fierce worshipper of the same Jesus that queer people have been killed in the name of. I am here to argue, however, that Dolly herself exists within a queer body, even if she is a straight, married woman, and thus she embodies Isherwood’s aforementioned description of a “redemptive space.”
Parton’s queer fandom often exists in the southern, rural, small-town audience.
Now we get personal.
For young queer people growing up in the south or in strictly country-music-loving homes, Parton could very well be the closest thing to a “gay icon” or ally they were exposed to. I’ve noticed this myself. This piece originated as an assignment to explore a gay icon of cinema and while I was conducting my research, those from cosmopolitan areas ask me why I didn’t choose to write about a more obvious gay icon (like Judy Garland), whereas those from the rural south immediately understand the queer connection to Dolly.
It is for this reason that Parton’s spirituality plays a very important (and “redemptive”) part in her connection to her queer fans. In the documentary Hollywood to Dollywood (2011), gay twin brothers Gary and Larry Lane from North Carolina plan a cross-country trip from Hollywood, California (where they currently live) to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee to present Dolly Parton with a screenplay they’ve written for her. Throughout the film, they discuss what Parton meant to them growing up in a very conservative, restrictive environment under the control of parents that still to this day do not accept their “gay lifestyle.” They lament the fact that they must live a “double life” and don’t get to share their cherished relationships with their parents. However, when it comes to Dolly, Larry makes a point about her position as an ally that immediately turns maternal:
All we want is our parents to be proud of us. And when there’s that one thing that they don’t accept about you, it’s very, very difficult… I think [Dolly] would embrace that one part of our lives that our mom doesn’t embrace. I remember early feelings of acceptance from her. I remember being like, “Well, she could accept me.”
In a sense, Dolly Parton’s existence as an ally is queering Christianity for her queer fans: instead of it being something oppressive to their bodies, sense of worth, and developing sexuality, she frees it to become something of comfort: Their idol, who fully accepts them and has lived her own life in a specifically non-normative fashion herself, is also a Christian. She is also a Christian just like, hypothetically, their mother that disowned them upon their coming out is a Christian. She is a Christian, so they too can accept their sexualities and reconcile them with religious beliefs and, like Parton and the queer Christian body, embody a space of “creative rebellion.” On top of this, she provides a space for queer visibility in the country music circuit. In an interview conducted in Hollywood to Dollywood, a fan explains, “Dolly’s concerts are the most diverse events you’ll ever find. You’ll see a Southern Baptist pastor standing next to a drag queen.” Zoom in on this image of the pastor and the queen sitting together singing the same song, and we see the embodiment of Isherwood’s “creative rebellion.”
It is interesting that Larry and Gary chose to model Hollywood to Dollywood as a road movie. Dolly’s story is also one of traveling: planning her escape from her poverty-striken hometown from the moment she could dream, then loading a Greyhound bus to Nashville to become a country star. Then, her eventual travels from Nashville to Hollywood to entertain crossover success. This narrative of traveling and its association with Parton reaches a pinnacle when considering Parton was asked to compose a song for the 2005 road movie Transamerica, about a pre-operation male-to-female transgender on a cross-country road trip with her son, who doesn’t know this is his father or that this is a biological man. And what did she do other than make a direct lyrical connection between the pre-op transgendered body and the Christian, pre-Christ:
Questions I have many, answers but a few
But we’re here to learn, the spirit burns, to know the greater truth
We’ve all been crucified, and they nailed Jesus to the tree
And when I’m born again, you’re gonna see a change in me.
These lyrics are working on many levels, intertwining Bree’s narrative with that of Jesus Christ himself and that of the “born again” Christian. Regarding the former, Jesus arose from the dead three days after his crucification. This mirrors the idea that once Stanley (Bree’s given name) is officially “dead” during his transition surgery, Bree will then emerge from the ashes. Regarding the latter notion, that of likening Bree to the saved, baptized Christian, we see a very tender correlation between two “rebirths.” When Bree is “born again,” or, emerges from her sex change operation, we will “see a change in [her],” as in she will be physically female, just like when a Christian is “born again” they will have turned their life around for the better. They have devoted their lives to Christ and therefore can be expected (and held accountable to) being kinder, gentler, and more forgiving toward others. In intertwining Bree’s narrative with that of the “born again” Christian, Parton is strongly arguing within the song that Bree has a right to this life and will benefit from doing what makes her happy. “I wanted to write [the song] because I love the message of that movie,” Parton explains, “That everyone has the right to dignity in their lives.”
Dolly Parton occupies the queer space with us all (even you straighties), but especially us southerner queers who are currently fighting for our protections in states like Arkansas with bills like SB202, aimed at confusing the world into thinking they’re anti-discrimination bills when they’re actually anti-anti-discrimination bills aimed at us. Us southern queers who are living in places, or are from places, where our states are lagging behind the rest of the nation in recognizing same-sex marriage or trans rights. We are the states that nearly universally take Dolly Parton appreciation into Dolly Parton worship. And this is the woman who has proven time and time again in both the roles that she takes on film, the songs that she sings on vinyl, and the life that she lives as an individual and public icon – that she is on the right side of history.
There is always skepticism within queer communities when a pop star modernizes their beliefs on queer rights issues during major career moves. During release of her seventh album Femme Fatale, accidental gay icon Britney Spears promoted it largely at gay clubs as a launching point, hoping we would all forget her “ew” reaction when in 2002 a reporter asked her if her refusal to change the female-admiring lyrics to the Stones’ “Satisfaction” in her cover was a shout-out to her gay fans. Let’s also not forget the sudden and seemingly invisible lyric change of Taylor Swift’s pre-domination era track “Picture to Burn” between album and single versions - from “So, go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy; that’s fine, I’ll tell mine you’re gay” to “You won’t mind if I say…” (A masterful chorus lead-in that literally works better than the previous homophobia).
But Dolly Parton herself is already a queer person, even as a straight person. At the very least, she’s an agent of queerness within a normative industry–film or country. And she has proven to be able to masterfully create these “redemptive spaces” in her work, religion, and interviews. So, I call on Dolly to speak her mind about these moments in time as they happen, even just as a measure of comfort. Just as I call on us all to find comfort in her words as these laws and the people passing them come for us: “I really do think I stand for being proud of who you are, and not worrying a lick about what other people think,” Dolly says. She goes on, “And I feel fortunate I’ve never had to be anything but myself.”
Michael Doshier is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the creator of the electronic rock project Johnny Darlin and his visual EP Mr. Monogamy, all available at johnnydarlin.com.
Set-up - joke – punch line - hahahaha.
Laughter has always been the natural psychological derivative to humor, but in the age of television, in which entertainment has divvied up all content producing shows into two categories - comedy and drama (and the now emerging “dramedy,” an amalgam of the two) - audiences are acutely instructed to understand what is funny, or at least, what is meant to come across as “funny.” Comedy comes in all shapes and sizes – it’s broad slap stick, it’s muted intellectual humor, it’s situational, it’s conversational – but the recent trend (in terms of critically acclaimed modern television, which often appears to be mutually exclusive to what is commercially successful) is an evolution into single camera, often “mockumentary” type series. The overarching “comedy” signifier would more accurately be broken into two, with the advent of single-cam constructing the great sitcom divide, leaving modern multi-cam shows (think Cheers, Friends, Seinfeld in their heydays compared to Big Bang Theory, Two Broke Girls) appearing antiquated and contrived. But more so than the filming devices employed in the production of modern sitcoms, this divide has created a shrewd awareness on behalf of critics and audiences alike when it comes to the ways in which laughter is prompted. Of course, I am speaking of the laugh track and the polarization it has created in a television landscape that both embraces and resists it.
Traditionally, laugh tracks were heralded into the world of sitcom as a means to counter the fundamental complication of television viewing: creating a theater-like, communal experience in the home. The laugh track itself dates back to the 1940s, when sound engineer Charley Douglass forever changed the relation of constructed humor to forced laughter with his attempt at compensating for the non-theater experience of television through the creation of the “laff box.” Douglass built a two-and-a-half foot high device that looked like a mix of an organ and a typewriter (pictured below).
Its keys, when connected to the laugh recordings, created a range of responses for any joke, big or small. One key produced a woman's laughter, another a child's; a mix would create big laughs, a single would create a minor one. Douglass even went so far as to update his device every few years or so, mixing and matching different laughs, retiring old and introducing new, to keep up with audiences. And so, the entertainment industry was granted a device that would “sweeten” a show with built-in laughter, whether comically deserved or not. Soon after it’s debut on The Hank McCune Show in 1956, the laugh track became a crutch television comedies could rest upon and a staple in the industry. There was of course the common disclaimer “this show was filmed before a live studio audience” that seems to circumvent the use of the “fake” laughs the track provides, but even in these cases, as evidenced by older shows Happy Days and The Mary Tyler Moore Show as well as the newer Two and a Half Men, the live, “real”1 giggles and chuckles are enhanced with canned ones.
The overwhelming current of laugh tracks throughout the ‘60s and well into the ‘90s was no grand experiment either; psychology researchers jumped on the phenomenon and verified that laugh tracks increase audience laughter and the audience’s rating of humorousness of the presented comedy material. Bill Kelley, a psychology professor at Dartmouth College who has studied the brain’s response to humor, validates the popularity of using a laugh track: “We're much more likely to laugh at something funny in the presence of other people.” By hearing others laugh -- even if it's prerecorded -- the cause will encourage the likewise effect. A 1974 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people were more likely to laugh at jokes that were followed by canned laughter. The scariest element of this confirmation is the concept that the sound of laughter itself can evoke infectious laughter – that you don’t need a joke at all. Because laughter exists in two entities – as an expression of emotion and as a decidedly social signal - the addition of the laugh track complicates whether this reaction to humor is entirely self-determined or whether modern audiences have become “programmed” in their responses to what passes as a joke.
Throughout the years, critics have lamented the provided “safety net” as well as pointed out the insulting factor to viewers that comes with the laugh track. Karal Ann Marling, a professor of American studies and art history at the University of Minnesota, voiced concerns about the sitcom staple: “Most critics think that the laugh track is the worst thing that ever happened to the medium. I mean, anything can be passed off as hilariously funny, if you've got people laughing like maniacs in the background.” Marling offers a popular opinion, “let me be the laugh track.”
At the turn of the century, something happened in the relationship between audience viewer and laugh track in that the latter was suddenly (after existing on some of the most popular and critically acclaimed series of the previous television era) a symbol of the unsophisticated show or sitcom. Comedies came along like The Office, Arrested Development, Modern Family, the animated Simpsons and South Park, all managing to have large followings, positive critical response applauding the more subtle, clever humor as a departure from easy jokes, huge cultural cache, and the ability to still garner laughter without ever forcing the canned laughs on viewers.
This new age has signaled a shift in both the way showrunners create their shows as well as how viewers consume the material. And this shift has been able to find its footing through the transition to single-cam; by departing entirely from the structure in which laugh tracks were the norm, sitcoms have been able to change the way to tell a joke. This new age of television highlights humor in details, in editing, in long-running jokes that would not have worked if not for the deviation from multi-cam form. Mitch Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development commented on this new innovation: “When you don't have a laugh track, you can make the clothes funny. We can make a sign funny. We can make the way somebody walks funny. The makeup can be funny.”
One of the greatest advantages of ditching the laugh track is the ability to write the script in which flow is not interrupted and space (read: time) is not given to the recorded laughs. Shows like 30 Rock and Community often have lightning-fast pace, jokes flying, landing and then a new joke suddenly piles on, that makes episodes of these series have more room for funny material, despite being the same length as an episode of Big Bang Theory. 22 minutes can now be filled to the brim with jokes both large and small.
But make no mistake – the laugh track is far from extinct. Its presence on many network shows seems as vital as the incorporation of music and editing. The most popular show on television – with the highest paid stars – Big Bang Theory makes no effort to hide its loud, constant recorded laughs. The canned laughter works like clockwork, coming after the same repetitive character quirks – Sheldon does not understand social conventions, Raj cannot speak in front of women, Penny cannot communicate on the same intellectual level as the others. Every episode’s script is a Mad Libs of the one before, just replacing the one-liners and punchlines with new material – but the “humor” behind the writing stays exactly the same. Or How I Met Your Mother, a show that ran 9 seasons, each one not filmed in front of a studio audience and each episode of every season containing consistent streams of recorded laughter.
Some critics and fans found the track a strange addition to a show that relied on crisp editing and a complex fast pace for subtle jokes to land, but the creators stuck by it. “We like the laugh track. I don't know how else to say it. It feels right. I get a little tired of the dusty old equation that single cam = daring and original and multicam = lazy and uninspired. I find that facile. I look at the White Stripes as an inspiration. Yes, they played old songs... but they found exciting new ways to play them. On our best days that's what we've tried to be.” So maybe it’s as simple as “we like it, get over it if you don’t”; or perhaps, the narrative on which the show was based – friends in the city looking for love – functioned on such a derivative level of so many other sitcoms to come before it (Friends is obviously the go-to example) and the jokes crafted by the show’s comedy writers needed the cushion of the track to ensure viewers would believe the show to be funny. And perhaps, maybe, the laugh track on a modern sitcom that plays in similar fashion to the single-cam ones without it would stand out from the lot as unique. I don’t know, perhaps.
In terms of popularity, it’s clear we are not witnessing the death of Douglass’s invention. The truth is that even in this “Golden Age” of television, comedies without laugh tracks fare worse than those that choose to employ the old trope. So indeed, those 14 million people tuning in for Big Bang Theory in comparison to the million or so tuned in to each episode of Community’s final season on NBC, believe that the communal experience the laugh track creates still matters. Comedies like Louie and Always Sunny in Philadelphia might be deconstructing the formula of “classic sitcom” but CK’s and the Sunny crew’s viewerships pale in comparison to less critically acclaimed shows like the departed Two and a Half Men and even the new Charlie Sheen vehicle Anger Management.
And just as we insist that cord-cutting is a reality and more viewers will relocate solely to Netflix, the numbers prove that more people are watching traditional television in the last few years than in the recent past; our proclamations against the laugh track might be all talk, no substance as well. The numbers can speak for themselves, and they say the laugh track continues to keep audiences comfortable in between punch lines, just as it always has.
On the wholly other end of the spectrum, one television reviewer, not concerned with commercial popularity of shows, critiqued: “Laugh tracks are the deathly shrieks that bellow in the background of television sitcoms in an attempt to turn a malignant punch line into something a little more benign. They are false advertisements, telling the people, 'This is good,' when what’s hidden underneath is bad.” Now, while this is an over-generalization of the trope, many modern audiences would agree that the track is no longer a necessity to “getting” humor on television. But we must take into consideration something else: the laugh track on a multi-cam sitcom feels fake to modern audiences (or so cry certain critics), but television series and the stories we consume through this medium are indeed fictional in and of themselves. On a mutli-camera show – take older Friends or newer 2 Broke Girls – the comedy lies in jokes that are born from contrived plots and situations. The seams of construction are obvious, but there’s also something honest in their presentation.
The actors are in hair, makeup, full costume. They are positioned intentionally; they look and sound rehearsed. Live studio audience or not, the players stand on their mark, under intense lighting that accompanies television production, and then the jokes are set up, the actor with the punch line will hit their cue with a premeditated delivery, and then of course, pausing for laughter. The entirety of the form, from script to shooting to presentation, is a constructed media product, so perhaps the manufactured laughs simply align with the illusion of reality that is the sitcom.
Modern television viewers who might be accustomed to single-cam can find watching a multi-cam show to be slightly jarring. Most new single-cam sitcoms, notably 30 Rock, Scrubs, and Girls, are shot as small films, eliminating any sign of fabricated performance “boosting realism, by inserting multiple distancing layers (editing, music, specific camera lenses, etc.) between the viewer and the actor.” The absence of the laugh track in addition to these other elements mark all that appears on our screens as “real” and the jokes can hit their mark in a way that makes the humor feel less broad and more grounded. But this in essence – the appearance of reality – can be interpreted as more of an artificial construction than the laugh track itself. One entertainment reporter put it, “The live studio audience, a set that is very obviously a set, or even a laugh track, as simple and stupid and taken for granted as it is, are subtle and powerful tools that shape our viewing experience. An agreement between the actors, the set and the audience is loud and clear: We’re putting on a show for your entertainment. For 21 minutes we experience, in the teeniest-tiniest way, the essence of comic theater.”
In any case, laugh tracks are polarizing, whether it’s viewers feeling as if they are treated as unintelligent enough to understand the humor on their own or whether it’s critics believing that the trope allows shows to mask mediocre comedy writing. Laughter itself is an expression of relief, one that is related to alleviating anxieties concerning culture, status, politics, what have you. Laughter is an equalizer in which the public can unilaterally interpret humor and let out a positive vocal response. It’s cathartic, it’ exhilarating, but it may be becoming more of a forced social construction than an innate desire. Television has always taught “morality” lessons, tales that reassert hegemony, stories that make a statement for social issues concerning race, feminism, and almost every cultural movement. But canned laughter teaches audiences something too; it can either act as an intermediary from show writer to television viewer – instructing them on how to watch an episode and connecting them to the material – reaffirming the faux-reality of fictional sitcoms or can insult and disturb the entire construction. Laugh tracks, still in very active use though it may not seem like it, will continue to be employed as long as audiences are laughing along to it. And in the meantime, the single-cam, mockumentary-type sitcoms might come to be a passing trend in which audiences feel disturbed and isolated by silence – especially as television becomes an entirely individual experience with new mediums, such as Netflix and Hulu, allowing viewers to be one-on-one with their show and craving the sound of laughter. If there’s one thing that’s certain in the debacle presented by the prerecorded tracks, it’s that laughter is physically, undeniably infectious.
Use of quotes because it would be outrageous to accept even the audience laughter as entirely authentic given the extreme laughter coercion techniques employed by television productions. (Back)
Sara is currently a senior at NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study concentrating in Media Theory and Entertainment Criticism. She will soon be moving on to the next phase of life: unemployment. To stay tuned for her inevitably self-deprecating descent, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
People walk slower when it’s Spring. They’ll risk being late for the scenic tour. They’ll forgo a nice meal to eat an ice cream cone in the park (post-Instagram). The wind, though dreadful to bare skin, is a small part of the magic.
When it’s Spring, we value our time differently than the colder seasons prior.
Dear readers, watchers, listeners -
It may be getting warmer outside, but that doesn’t mean our burdens melted away with the snow. There is a lot going on in the world. Sometimes, we focus on the grander aspects of humanity that touch more lives than just our own1, but more often we concentrate on a tiny portion of the Earth’s mass: ourselves. We put all of our energy towards our own stirring yet static lives.
I have a belief that people intuitively seek drama. They look for the problems. They see a cup half full and wonder, why not a plate of food, also?
We spend hours thinking about the people who don’t swipe right back. We wake up dreading a menial task that by no means defines our lives. We wonder why our messages go ignored. We find ourselves sitting with a frown on our faces and are unable to articulate why. We feel misunderstood.
It’s human nature to desire the things we don’t have, nor understand. It’s easy to look at celebrities2 on Periscope and wish we lived a comparable lifestyle.
We forget to acknowledge the stability in our lives: supportive families and friends, moving bodies, disposable income. It’s an ugly truth that cancer cautions us to value our health and deaths in the family help us recognize the blessings each person in our life represents.
Time pushes us forward and there’s never enough time to sit back and be satisfied with how and with whom we've spent our time.3 Life is hard and even so, the world doesn't owe us any favors. Every day we wake up, we surrender our control to the Universe and keep trekking on, hoping it will play nice.
The Sun on our skin feels nice though. And the springtime reminds us that taking a moment to experience this complimentary comfort from the star of our Solar System is never a waste of time.
Adam, Thomas, and I carefully selected pieces of art we felt would best enlighten and entertain our audience. We want to not only draw in more eyes and ears to the talent of our contributors, but we want our audience to ponder the different perspectives neatly compiled in this issue.