Thursday, July 1, 2010

Sophie Tucker, Racist Oppressor

Fats Wallers' version.

What would I blog about without the Globe's insufferable Louise Kennedy? If she didn't exist, I'd have to invent her! (Ok, I'd still have the horrifying Diane Paulus over at the A.R.T. to complain about, but seriously, without Louise my blogging would probably be cut in half.)

Oh, what has she done now, Tom? I can almost hear you sighing; well I'll tell you. It's a small thing - but then isn't everything a small thing in the long run? Yes, it is.

In her recent pan of the New Rep's Sophie Tucker show - which is actually entertaining, btw - Kennedy singled out two of Tucker's perennial numbers for special disapproval: "Darktown Strutters' Ball" and "Hula Lou." Should either of these tunes, Kennedy wondered in a gently-censoring tone, be performed in a show in 2010?

Well why the hell not? What, are they RACIST or something??

Of course they are! Oh and Johnny Baseball was homophobic (another recent Louise head-scratcher).

I guess "Darktown Strutters' Ball" is racist because it has that horrifying word "Darktown" in the title instead of "Harlem." Which has been known to turn young children in Newton into snarling white supremacists.

But Tom, isn't saying "Darktown" in a song a lot like saying "Gaytown" or "Jewtown"?

Yes, it is. Grow up.

And at any rate, the song's title (the tune itself is a paean to its eponymous strutters) didn't seem to offend Ella Fitzgerald, or Alberta Hunter, or Fats Waller, or Fats Domino, or a zillion other jazz greats, who all recorded it and made it a standard.

But it offends Louise.

So please everyone say "Harlem" from now on instead of "Darktown"! That way we will have ended racism.

As for "Hula Lou" - where to begin? I mean it's about this Hawaiian femme fatale who has her pick of sailors! Every verse is a veritable orgy of pure objectification. It's all about how exotic Hula Lou is, and how cold and uncaring (in some versions, she shoots a guy). But is there any mention of her graduate studies in "Gender and Performance"? No, there is not. Lou is merely a screen for the projection of racist sexual fantasy. Oh sure, the song pretends to be about "unrequited love" - a transparent euphemism for the male gaze, frankly, if not for the phallo-centrism of white masculine subjectivity in general.

Gosh, I wonder if anyone ever wrote a novelty song called "Hula Lou and the Phallo-centrism of White Male Subjectivity in General."

And if not, why not?

Now I know Louise Kennedy isn't actually trying to crush all the joy out of life - that's just an unfortunate byproduct of her determination to improve us. Someday, I'm sure, we'll all be happy to sit at home and listen to Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" while watching Sidney Poitier movies, just like she does.

Alberta's version.

But in the meantime, I have one question. Sophie Tucker, after all, sang both these songs innumerable times over the course of her career. I think she recorded them both.

So that means Sophie Tucker was a racist.


Or does it mean that Sophie's rise was bound up in some way with the rise of other performers (and peoples!) who were once outside the ken of white society? After all, Tucker got her start performing in blackface - a weirdly complicated trope that I just don't have room to unpack here, although it would be ridiculous to posit that choice as evidence of racism on her part. Instead, it makes clear that Tucker was embedded in her period's "complex matrix of racial and sexual signifiers," if you will. If you cut these numbers out of her act, you've cut out something that was central to her, too. And actually, you've cut out something that's central - even if today it gives us a twinge of embarrassment or regret - to the struggle around race and gender in this country as well.

Besides which, "Darktown Strutters' Ball" (if not "Hula Lou") is just a damn good song. A classic, actually, by general acclaim - although, no, by now I don't expect Louise Kennedy to be knowledgeable enough to know that. So just say "Harlem" in your head if you want to when you listen to it - but listen to it.