Wednesday, April 23, 2008

lady sings the hill street blues

A few days ago, I came out to the RISD community as Mariah Carey. OK, technically, I “came out” as “queer RISD faculty,” participating in a panel of other queer faculty who presented their “work and inspirations” as a part of RISD Queer Week...but please, my coming out as “queer RISD faculty” is like coming out of a walk-in closet the size of an auditorium, since everyone knows that I am gay, flaming. So the more important coming out was revealing to a roomful of students and some colleagues that I consider myself Mariah’s spiritual twin. So in honor of all things queer—and by this I mean the entirety of that word: homosexual, non-normative, and probably most appropriate to this post, “strange"—I thought I would write about and perform my favorite track on Mariah’s new album, E = MC2. The song is “I’ll Be Loving U Long Time,” and I’ve been listening to it, at least three times, every day since the album came out last Tuesday. Here’s why...

the blues:

First there is the melody: the music-librarian in me knows that it is technically a sample of DeBarge’s “Stay With Me,” but to me, it is the theme to the 80s television drama “Hill Street Blues.”

When I first heard the opening bars of Mariah’s song, I immediately saw the opening credits: a garage door opens, and police cars stroll out, the ominousness of their sirens supplanted by the melancholy of the catatonic piano chords. Mariah’s song actually interpolates not the opening bars of “Hill Street Blues,” but its transitional moment into its actual theme. The show was one of the textbooks—along with “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Dynasty,” and “Dallas,”—by which I learned English when my family moved to the U.S. in 1983. But “Hill Street Blues” had a different pedagogical effect than the other shows. The big 3-“D” shows hooked me in easily and immediately into the English language with their glittering feminine icons (listen to the names!): Charlene, the sublimely beautiful bourgeoise black girl(Janet Jackson), Alexis Colby Carrington, the bitchy Brit (Joan Collins); Krystal (note krazy spelling) Carrington, the saintly silver fox (Linda Evans); Miss Ellie, the warm-eyed matriarch (Barbara Bel Geddes); Jenna Wade, who was unremarkable except she was played by a soap-opera character named Priscilla Beaulieu (“beautiful place” in French) Presley, a.k.a. Madame Elvis Presley. As a prepubescent femme kid, I was always seeking out women crystalline enough to emulate and imitate. “Hill Street Blues,” however, had no krystalline women. It did feature a brittle D.A. played by Veronica Hamill, and her severe ponytail would have been attractive to a 28-year old version of myself, but the tweed and turtlenecks and the character’s name—JOYCE DAVENPORT—was not...sparkly. The other woman on the show was also another I’d have loved as a grown lesbian in a fag’s body: Betty Thomas as Sgt. Lucy Bates (Thomas went on to direct, notably “The Brady Bunch Movie”). But the point is: the women of "Hill Street Blues" were documentary-dykey in a way that a wide-eyed girly 9-year old boy has no pull towards. But I remember staying up to watch the show, understanding none of it (because there were no gowns, no femme gesticulating) and often falling asleep in the middle of it, only because I wanted to hear the theme song. The music touched some deep pit in my stomach: it sounded incredibly sad to me, and even though I didn’t understand or particularly care what happened what happened after the credits finished, I stayed loyal nonetheless. So to me, the fact that Mariah, knowingly or not, interpolated the music into her song feels like a femme vindication: she realized its feminine potential, and in doing so, she vindicated my baby-aesthetics.

And then there is the title. “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time” is a multi-layered citation: first, there is the 2 Live Crew Song, “Me So Horny,” which links Mariah to her hip-hop love. But hyperlinking from 2 Live Crew, we come to the film “Full Metal Jacket,” the 1987 Stanley Kubrick film about the Vietnam War. Both song titles refer to a scene in which a couple of American G.I.’s are propositioned by a Vietnamese hooker, who basically says: “suckee fuckee ten so love you long time.” Within the film, it is a disturbing representation of American influence in Vietnam; outside its textual realm, it becomes a racist caricature that foreclosed the ways in which Asian women could be represented in American cinema. (Margaret Cho does a great, critical imitation of this.) So what does it mean that Mariah uses this line, uttered in an Asian hooker’s broken English, as a chorus to a love song? I think something pretty gorgeous: sampling at its best. By remaining faithful to the broken syntax of the line (Mariah doesn’t say, “I’ll be loving you FOR a long time”), Mariah embraces broken language as the only syntax by which a woman can express an addictive, possibly self-annihilating, crazy love. She retains the shattered grammar but fastens back together the hooker’s desperate social position with the superglue that is her voice, the voice. Mariah’s whispery belting beefs up the skeletal broken English of “loving you long time” into a complex rhythm that is simultaneously sad and swinging.

...and at the same time, her use of broken English gets me back to “Hill Street Blues,” and my 9-year old self, with my own broken English, learning through TV and the lure of mysteriously sad drama-themes, to perfect my use of the new language. Which gets us to...

the lady:

I recently bought a nice shiny new camera—my first digital! (ooh I’m so low-fi!) And I wanted to play with its video component and also figure out a low-fi way to clip the song into this blog, so I thought, why not put my body on the line and give a little quarter-pounder of flesh to this lovely song. I thought it’d be cute to do something casual, so I thought I’d film myself in the morning, when (when I’m not teaching) I’m rolling around in my dressing gown singing along to various tunes with my four cups of coffee. So Monday, I put on some Shu lipstick (RD 190 this time...a smidgen of blue in it), waited till my hair was dry, put the camera on a stack of CD’s, and bopped the song out. Another reason for filming it in the morning was that my dressing gown is in fact a kimono, and I wanted that specific costume as a tribute to the misunderstood Asian prostitute who inspired all of this in the first place. Let me tell you about my kimono:

I bought it a couple years ago when my old red plaid kimono fell apart. I went back to the store where I bought the other one: Genji, on Geary Street in San Francisco, which specializes in Japanese antiques. I paid $60 for it and what a bargain! It’s vintage, threadbare and yellowed in spots, but a soured-milk white silk, with a blue butterfly insignia...

...which is so appropriate for a femme Asian fag: M. Butterfly and all that. And besides, “Butterfly” was the title of Mariah’s post-divorce album, which has a lot of meaning for me: it was released in 1997, my first year of graduate school, my first year living in the Bay Area, the year I met my ex-husband. I loved that album so much, that for years, my best friends from grad school who knew my Mariah-identification, simply called me “B”—for “Butterfly” (but also for “Bitchy-poo” when I was not...agreeable).

When I watch my Butterfly performance of “I’ll Be Loving U Long Time,” I have to laugh, and get a bit embarrassed because I’M SUCH A BAD LIP-SYNCHER!!! I mean, I get a lot of the chorus, but mess up most of the verse. It's clear that I haven't yet learned all the words, and Lord, the psychotic eye and I trying to be a soul diva or a thrasher or a suicidal poetess? You decide. What’s certain is that I’m a terrible lip-syncher, but that’s OK with me. To me, lip-synching should NOT be a performance of mastery. I’m always kind of creeped out when drag queens lip-synch perfectly because it feels kind of like colonization: like femininity can be “captured” or “perfected” through a set of learned gestures. To me, femininity, like any language, is much too messy to perfect and it’s wonderful because of its difficult-to-master expansiveness: it makes one find joy in the process rather than the end result. I like seeing myself fudge up Mariah’s song: Mariah cannot be colonized, by anyone, ever!! The voice of my ideal doesn’t fit perfectly into my skin, and it shouldn't: it’s one I still, always, have to grow into.


Pollyanna E.F. said...

You are more fabulous than MC + Diana + MTM put together!

KT said...

i love U long time B-pooh (aka B-bim-bap, and now LDS, latter-day Schechter). P and I were gigglesnorting at your lipsynching but not because it was bad, but shockingly so...GOOD! anyway, for all these years i've known you i didn't realize we came the same year--1983. been thinking about that year a lot lately. waiting for your return here on the coast...xoxohoag