Thursday, December 13, 2007

Whoa-oh-oh-oh, Da Doo Ron Ron

On Saturday I'll be in NYC again to see Doris to Darlene at Playwrights Horizons (and maybe do some Christmas shopping). I'm excited: not only is playwright Jordan Harrison a great guy and a talented writer, but the subject of this play sounds right up my alley. It interweaves 3 stories: Richard Wagner writing Tristan and Isolde, a 1960s girl-group singer's career, and a contemporary gay man's coming of age. Y'all know that I'm in an opera phase right now (though I'm no Wagnerian) but it might surprise you that I absolutely love girl-group pop!

Probably this has something to do with playing a doo-wop girl in Little Shop of Horrors in high school and getting to sing Ashman & Menken's pastiche songs. Really, it's a great score; the choice to use girl-group music is just so perfect for the show's humor and its 1950s/1960s setting. And it parodies its sources just enough, never too much. In the opening number, we sang "Shing-a-ling, what a creepy thing to be happening. Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!" Only a few years later did I realize that that parodied the Shangri-Las' shouts in "Leader of the Pack."

This kind of music has also been heard on Broadway in Hairspray and Dreamgirls. Hairspray's "Mama I'm a Big Girl Now," with its three girls singing harmony and I-vi-iv-V chord structure, perfectly evokes the girl-group sound. It's one of my favorite songs in the score. However, I did not think that any of The Dreams' hit songs in Dreamgirls were as catchy or brilliant as the real deal from the Supremes. (More Dreamgirls carping here.)

Girl-group songs are a lot of fun, obviously, but their sweetness and innocence and adolescent heartbreak can also be quite affecting. When I went through my first quasi-relationship/quasi-breakup (eh, it was complicated) one thing that helped was listening to "Where Did Our Love Go?" and "You Can't Hurry Love" on repeat. Sounds clichéd, I know...but better than listening to emo.

It's funny that these songs should be this powerful, because they're the very definition of commercial music--written not from the depths of an artist's soul, but by teams of songwriters hoping to score a big hit. Much of the time, white adults wrote songs for young urban black girls to sing, which is a little creepy/exploitative (especially when said white man was Phil Spector!). At Motown the songwriters as well as the singers were black, but if anything, the "hitmaking machine" mentality was even more in effect.

Some people may scorn girl-group music because it's so commercial, but there's a lot of distinguished girl-group aficionados, too. They include:

Amy Winehouse: Her Grammy-nominated album (congrats Amy!) is heavily based around the classic girl-group sound: "Back to Black" might be the greatest Phil Spector song that Phil Spector never produced. But her voice gives it a modern twist: paradoxically, she's both more tough and more vulnerable than the typical poppy girl-group singer (the Shangri-Las excepted).

The Pipettes: A trio from the UK who is also contributing to the girl-group revival. Pretty, peppy, and polka-dotted, "Pull Shapes" ought to cheer you up if you just watched that funerary "Back to Black" video...

Martin Scorsese: Ever since seeing Goodfellas last summer I can't listen to "And Then He Kissed Me" without thinking of how it underscores the astounding tracking shot where Henry and Karen make their way into the Copacabana Club through the kitchen. Just ecstatically good filmmaking and music.

Tom Stoppard: His quasi-autobiographical character Henry, in The Real Thing, knows he "should" love difficult classical music, but really only likes the '60s pop hits from his youth. In one scene, he is trying to choose eight songs that are personally significant to him for the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs--but, ashamed of his musical tastes, is hunting for some more obscure tracks than the ones he usually listens to:
HENRY: I'm supposed to be one of your intellectual playwrights. I'm going to look like a total prick, aren't I, announcing that while I was telling Jean-Paul Sartre and the post-war French existentialists where they had got it wrong, I was spending the whole time listening to the Crystals singing "Da Doo Ron Ron."
That's one way of looking at it, Henry...or you could've been like Jordan Harrison, and put both your intellect and your love of girl-group music into one of your plays!

1 comment:

Mead said...

Divine Ms. M, though I rarely get to comment on your specific content these crazy daze, I want you to know I love reading your blog. It inspires and piques my interest and leads me to new things I hadn't thought about. Just wanted you to know.

And I'm looking very forward to your reporting on Jordan's new opus.