The ’Mo in Motown

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:12

    Dusty Springfield was feisty. She loved her wine and she loved her women. Unless she was loving her men. A chestnut-haired guitar strummer born Mary O’Brien from a nice British family in Ealing, London, she began life as a folkster playing in a trio called the Springfields.

    And then she discovered Motown. Reborn as Dusty Springfield, she exceeded the limitations of Catholic middle-class good taste by embracing soul music and a teased and tortured platinum bouffant that announced “I am Dusty, hear me roar.”

    In author and Bucknell University professor of musicology Annie J. Randall’s words, Dusty was one “take no shit hip chick.” “Son of a Preacher Man,” “I Only Want to Be with You” and “Wishin’ and Hopin,” Dusty’s smoky-smooth numbers rendered in that iconoclastic, emotionally authentic, mesmerizing voice, inspired a generation of fans as well as peer-group devotees of the white soul singer, Amy Winehouse and Elvis Costello.

    Randall blends scholarly interest with groupie fascination in Dusty! Queen of the Postmods, which goes so far as to suggest that Dusty was not only cool but also postmodern. Her ability to range across musical genres was evidence of an “unfixed” identity, notes Randall. And she was camp! In other words, she was in on the joke, in big ways and small. Cited is her rendition of “Don’t Speak of Love,” which cribbed a melody from Wagner opera Tannhuser and married it to a pop ditty. Score one for Dusty, in self-consciously noodling with a Teutonic heavy while goosing the love song’s sentimental mush.

    In Randall’s view, Dusty fought the power many times over, primarily with her embrace of black music, from blues to soul to gospel. But there were also the subversive lyrics that spoke to female will and heartbreak, her refusal to have her sexuality pinned down by eager beaver journalists and her defiant streak of ber-femininity that played the game required by a sex-fixated record industry without swallowing the Kool-Aid. Randall’s skill is in locating Dusty within a particular mid-1960s cultural moment when white and black merged and concrete gender roles began to buckle, while also recognizing the universality of her dilemma in adopting a self-conscious “drag” of hyper-femininity. What woman can’t relate?

    Call it postmodernism, bipolarity or just the circumstance of being female, but Randall capably excavates the singer’s essential duality: An authentic self named Mary and a made-up dolly with charcoal eyelids and raccoon lashes called Dusty. It was that balancing act of emotional authenticity and a self-aware, self-invented inhabitation of a sultry femme masquerade that made her fans, gay and straight, men and women, go gaga for Dusty, reveling in separating her authentic self from the drag. Evidence of her camp power: In the ‘60s and ‘70s, says Randall, every queen with a mike and a John Waters platinum doo-doo pile was doing Dusty before the singer began to slide into obscurity.

    Though Randall often performs her own “drag” of Academy-speak (albeit practicing admirable restraint in holding off from invoking that old academic chestnut “the Other” until page 21) it’s in her “field work” where Randall gets up close and personal. Her interviews with Dusty’s fans tap into the same rapturous collision of sexual blossoming and musical fandom Todd Haynes milked in Velvet Goldmine. Randall follows three members of the Dusty Springfield Fan Club: Moira, Carole and Edward. Mad for Dusty, the trio often had to hide their shame. To worship at the cock-rock cult of The Beatles or The Stones was socially acceptable, but Dusty-as-religion was socially suspect. Carole picked up on the teenicide of digging Dusty too deeply, observing, “It wasn’t acceptable for a girl to be affected by another girl.” Ditto Edward: “Young teenage boys weren’t supposed to have an interest in female pop singing stars.” But, oh, did they ever.

    Dusty is a slim, quick read. It’s a primer in Springfield’s cultural significance during her popular reign from 1964 to 1969 and her reflection of changing gender and racial roles with some stodgy detours into fussy academic vernacular and microscopic readings of her hits.

    Despite Randall’s own (not camp) pop/pedagogy bipolarity, the author shows an appreciation for injecting personality into her academic study in an otherwise admirable effort to resuscitate a too-often-overlooked musical icon. 

    -- Dusty! Queen of the Postmods