Touring glam, anarcho-punk, and narcissism: a video history

by Yule Heibel on December 20, 2006

I’m obviously not posting much on this blog lately. It’s experiencing a rethink — if I were smarter, I would figure out the pattern here, but I’m not there (yet!)…

I’m experiencing a rethink, too. I have a paid writing gig these days — nothing too demanding, but I’m experiencing a learning curve nonetheless. I say this by way of explaining my absence here. But it’s a cop-out: I want to be absent here, even though I want to be present. Childish, isn’t it?

More on this later. For now, a “minder” to myself, something to flesh out and give context to the stuff I’m writing off-line.

I recently finished a little article about downtown Victoria, in which I relied heavily on the lyrics to Petula Clark’s 1964 hit “Downtown.” In that article, I also briefly mentioned that ex-Spice Girl (“Baby Spice”) Emma Bunton has done a remake of that song. Well, subsequently I wondered why I ever mentioned the latter version — given the word-limit, I couldn’t explicate. But I can here.

The Bunton version is an object lesson. It’s really a piece of tripe.

Brief detour: I’m also thinking about my next piece (for the February issue of the magazine I’m writing for), which necessitated some reading of tourism theory. (Yes, tourism theory. Not exactly the business angle, but more like the Foucault-ian angle…) From Cities and Visitors; Regulating Tourists, Markets and City Space (ed. by Lily M. Hoffman, Susan S. Fainstein, Dennis R. Judd) I learned a ton of stuff in chapter 3, by Nicola Costa and Guido Martinotti, for example. Costa and Martinotti actually enlightened me significantly as to my own past collusion in middle-class intellectualism (perhaps the same stuff that Adorno called Halbbildung, and which some conservative critics now revile as well). That is, the kind of thinking-about-things that used to be relatively esoteric ivory tower theory has filtered down to a broader spectrum of middle-class intellectuals, who (in an unfortunately often small-minded way) have made a dogmatic hash of things.

From chapter 3:

Critical theory is important, as it yields information regarding intellectuals and their audience. Indeed, books within this tradition have had great success with a learned public — the members of the intellectualized middle class, engaged in differentiating themselves from mass tourists through the construction and presentation of an ideal self, that of intelligent travelers who differentiate themselves through the exhibition of refined and expensive cultural tastes (Munt 1994).

Through critique, the intellectualized middle class has elaborated a distinctive poetic and policy of taste and distaste in the form of the ‘romantic gaze,’ which is opposed to the ‘collective gaze’ of the general public (Urry 1990). Critical intellectuals do not have among their primary objectives the intergenerational transmission of the art of travel, and their books lack any indication of how to fill vacations with acceptable content. They have provided a critique which contrasts standardized recreation and the rule of money with authentic experience. They have failed, however, to describe a content different from that generated by the market. The ‘critical’ middle class is composed of snobbish individuals. Graburn and Barthel-Bouchier (2001: 149) observe: ‘These commentators, snobs or anti-tourists are sure of two things: tourists are not us and they are inherently bad, the regressive detritus of burgeoning affluence in modernity.’

Consequently, critical intellectuals have not had any practical impact on the regulation of the negative environmental and social-equity effects of mass tourism. they have delineated the aestheticism of the anti-tourist in everyday life with considerations regarding taste and distaste in order to contrast the vulgarity of the masses that have crowded beaches and ski slopes and invaded cities. The ideal visitor, remembered nostalgically, is the learned traveler who knows ancient languages, proceeds at a leisurely pace, learns neither useful nor practical things, and belongs to a complex high culture. We hypothesize that the critics of the welfare-state-consumer-society-mass tourism trinomial belong to the intellectual type that Bauman (1987) defines as legislators. They set the rules for good taste, exhibit certainties from top to bottom, and are surrounded by aura and timorous respect.

My working theory for another article (one of the not-yet written ones) is that we are all tourists now. The working title is “The Tourist ‘I'” — a hungry eye, or an over-sated one?
But back to Petula Clark, Emma Bunton, and one other…

In my last article (it’s called “Consuming Downtown,” published by Focus magazine in Victoria), I quoted from the lyrics to Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” Thanks to YouTube, you can watch a very cool film clip (maybe from 1964, but more likely from 1967) of Pet Clark performing the song before an audience. The video is available via this YouTube link. It’s so innocent (in retrospect it actually seems chaste), yet glamourous: Clark is in a studio, on stage, in an evening gown. She has a battery of back-up dancers. One of the clip’s comments notes,

The way she moves towards the camera while gently swinging her hips to the accompaniment of tuxedoed male dancers, that is the very definition of the sixties pop style that inspired Bob Fosse for 10 more years at least.

It’s styled and fake and set indoors, but pasted to a wall in the background there is a picture of a city skyline, its density expressed in highrises. Even though it’s a dance number that has been choreographed to the nines, you can watch this and still believe it’s actually about “downtown.”

With Emma Bunton’s version of “Downtown,” however, you know it’s just infantile narcissism run amok. Bunton’s music video is available on this YouTube page. Compare the two. Bunton, done up as a French Maid (yet clearly incapable of doing any kind of actual maid’s work), experiences “downtown” as a fantasy …in a sealed room. That is, she never leaves the deluxe confines of a baroque-ish hotel room, through which troops a parade of cardboard characters, the likes of which you’d probably not find on any actual downtown street (unless it was Carnevale in Rio — the movie version).

“Baby” Spice gives us a “downtown” without a street, but what else could one expect from someone who, like some Peter Pan on steroids, has not grown up? Bunton, playing at playing a character (“French Maid”), comes across as the empty-headed narcissist she has to be, if she is to succeed in appealing to Mr. and Ms. EveryPerson’s fantasy of infantile aggrandizement.
If Clark’s back-up dancers still conveyed a sense of military precision (and hence, some notion of effort), Bunton’s gang of hotel room pals is at pains to avoid any and all suggestions of purpose or effort or co-ordination. It’s all playpen fun, but it’s without issue — except the all-important issue of vacant “vogue-ing,” which simply demands your attention, but none of your empathy, imagination, or thought.

Contrast this to another “downtown” music video — this one is hands-down my all-time favourite: Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (also via YouTube). Unlike Bunton, whose “downtown” universe is the private room, Lauper includes the private room (her bedroom, at the end of the video) and the street: both are important. But most tellingly, watch how differently density (the holy grail of urban vibrancy) is handled by Lauper as opposed to Bunton. In Bunton’s hotel-room “downtown,” every kind of person is scripted as a cog in a narcissistic parade of the same kinds of people: facets of Bunton’s fantasy, which in turn are the infantilised viewer’s objects of self-pleasing fascination, too. There is no wish to suggest diversity: it’s all one class (namely Euro-trash), one age, one taste, etc. In Lauper’s video, on the other hand, density (and its very real accompanying diversity, which, should you experience it in the flesh, forces you into contact with difference) is what makes for the fun: there’s a crazy mixing up old and young; rich and poor; white, black, brown, and yellow; hip and staid, etc. It’s full of possibility, and every time I see it, I smile. I don’t smile when I see Bunton’s “Downtown,” though. It’s a depressing tourism hell, a phony theme park of what’s allowed and “in.”

Clark: glamour; Lauper: anarchy & punk; Bunton: narcissism & spectacle for its own sake (=boring!).


melissa January 2, 2007 at 11:35 pm

Hi — do you know Glen Gould’s broadcast on Petula Clark? You can listen to it at ubu.web here.

yulelog January 3, 2007 at 1:29 am

Wow, I hadn’t heard of this — thanks for the link, Melissa. I in fact had no idea that Glenn Gould ever broadcast anything about pop music (I knew he wrote postcards home to his dog, which clearly endeared him to me, but this is news…). Admittedly, not having a music or music theory background, much of this is over my head, frankly. It does make me think — from what I can gather from my first quick listen-through — that Gould would have been sympathetic to Adorno’s rubbishing of jazz (now widely believed to have been wrong-headed). Gould’s social commentary is biting… I wonder what he would make of our current art scene? Have you seen, for example, the effusions in this 2006 Revue? Commentators go weak-kneed, thus:

The most important development of 2006 was the complete takeover of the contemporary art market by hedge fund billionaires. These are people who give themselves a billion-dollar bonus at Christmas simply by writing themselves a check. This hedgy dominance is now so overwhelming that longtime collectors Don Rubell and Dean Valentine actually complained on the record to Business Week about the fickle ways of these plutocratic Johnny-come-latelys.

Oh, my heart bleeds, just bleeds…

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