In the last month I’ve seen two shows that remind me why I love musicals. Both featured amazing scores, songs I’m still singing, days and weeks later. Both had complex, progressive political and social texts that exposed Broadway (and LA) audiences to musical cultures foreign to the Great White Way. One featured a jaw-dropping, career-defining performance; one, a star turn better than that by the famous actress in the film. But in both Fela! and West Side Story, it was the dance that really made me bow down in humble homage to the skills of two of America’s greatest choreographers – then get on my feet and want to snap my fingers, shake my ass, and leap across the stage.
Monthly Archives: April 2013
The final event of EMPLA was Critical Karaoke, a clever exercise invented by Joshua Clover where participants have the length of a song to talk about a song, while the song plays. The dozen participants had very different styles and subjects, from the Mamas and the Papas to Lupe Fiasco. And it was a blast. I chose “California Paradise” by the Runaways. Below is what I said; you can see a picture of me saying it here:
The Runaways used to open their shows with “California Paradise.” The midtempo rocker established the mythology, the particular 1970s American dream of hedonistic freedom that the band of teenage girls repped and peddled: fast cars, fast women, salty winds. Kim Fowley calls the song the female response to the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” “It’s a great album cut for rock critics and masturbating youth,” their ever quotable producer, etc., says.
The Runaways at once were those California girls, and they were not. The members all hailed from various pockets of the Los Angeles basin – the Valley, the OC, Long Beach. But they weren’t exactly the “cutest” objects of the brothers Wilson throbbing fantasy. By the time the Runaways recorded “California Paradise,” in the Beach Boys’ studio, Brothers, for their second album, Queens of Noise, they were firmly their own subjects, writing their own fantasies – or ironies. After all, by the mid ‘70s, beach blanket bingo had turned into Babylon bacchanal, more dystopic than utopian. Cherie Currie missed a few days of the Queens sessions in order to abort the child with which she had been impregnated by the Runaways’ manager, Scott Anderson. Listen to the way she hisses “you’re so nice… paradise.” Those are the sibilants of a snake; they’re vaudevillian boos.
I spent the last few years immersed in the sometimes inspiring, sometimes horrific history of the Runaways. It was an intense personal journey in some ways: I was returning to my own California girl roots. I’m a relatively rare species, a third-generation Californian, though my parents fled the smog and Reagan when I was 4. Around the same time the Runaways were traveling the world, singing about busting out of jail, I was becoming a teenager trapped in the heartland. The Golden State represented my own romanticized roots and exotic other. We’d go back to visit, and at night, my cousin Cathy – two earth years and 100 light years ahead of me – and I would sneak out and walk the streets of Van Nuys, looking for adventure. Maybe I’m glad I never found the Sugar Shack, the infamous teen disco where the Runaways allegedly found Currie. Or maybe I’m jealous.
It took me four decades to come home — Back to the garden. And I have to admit, in our beachside villa, we live a Californian paradisaical existence. The sunshine never ends – except for the daily fog. Paradises are always fantasies. The Runaways were smart enough to know that at sweet 16 – and sing about it anyways.
I had the immense honor to co-present a conversation between Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and girl wonder Vivien Goldman at LMU today. Focusing primarily on the work of Fela Anikapulo Kuti and Bob Marley, they talked about politics, music, activism, pan-Africanism, post-colonialism, spiritualism — and a whole lot more. It was probably the most distinguished panel I’ve ever been associated with, and the Marymount Institute was packed.
This followed on the heels of the successful launch party for the EMPLA Conference last night in West Hollywood. The Jabberjaw panel was great, and yet I felt they slightly sidestepped my question afterwards about race issues and gentrification. Well, panelist Raquel Gutierrez apparently felt the same way, and wrote this amazing blog about race, punk, Riot Grrrl, gender, etc.
The conversation about Pop and Politics continues tomorrow at USC and Saturday at Redcat Theater. I moderate a panel at 10:30 tomorrow morning and am doing a Critical Karaoke piece (on the Runaways) Saturday afternoon. If either of them go half as well as these two events, I’ll be a lucky girl.