Songs for the Struggling Artist

Melt the Guns

Whenever I see a story about gun violence and it makes me feel sad and angry and helpless, I tweet a link to the XTC song, “Melt the Guns.” I don’t say what it’s for. I just tweet the song. It’s not a project. I don’t feel like I need to stay up to date with shootings so I can catch them all or anything. There are too many for that. If you tracked all the tweets, you could probably connect them to the news story fairly easily. Not that there’d be much point in doing that. It’s just, you’d be able to see what a lot of gun violence I have responded to since I started doing this.

I tweet this particular song because a) it’s a really great song and b) it’s a pretty clear directive. What should we do about all these tragic shootings? Melt the guns and never more to fire them. Clear enough. I know it would never work in this world where guns have more rights than women or children. I fear we’ll never find a way to tear the guns from the hands of killers – but as an aspiration, I feel pretty good about the idea of melting the guns. I do not give one solitary fuck about peoples’ guns. Melt them. Seriously.

We’re always trying to compromise. The NRA is always sending people into a panic that we are coming for their guns. A guy I went to high school with posted that he was stockpiling his guns when Obama was elected. Every time there is horrible tragic school shooting, gun sales go up. The NRA have made people absolutely paranoid that every liberal policy will involve taking their guns away. It has never been thus. But, fuck it. Let’s do it. It’s never been on the agenda before but if the gun nuts are so afraid of it, it must be what they secretly want us to do. Maybe they’re pulling a Brer Rabbit and crying out, “Please, oh, please, whatever you do, don’t take my guns away!” Okay. You got it. Time for melting. I don’t care anymore. I had to tweet “Melt the Guns” twice in one day when that asshole shot up the grocery store in Buffalo. Once for that nightmare and again when someone started shooting somewhere else. I can’t even remember where now. That’s how many of these there are. And folks, folks, I wrote this whole piece before Uvalde happened. When I retweeted “Melt the Guns” for that incident, it was still just an unconfirmed rumor that was breaking my heart.

Every other country in the world understands that having a lot of guns around is a problem. If you read a travel advisory for this country, it will warn you about the potential for gun violence here. There’s a Kids in the Hall sketch from decades ago that I’ve never forgotten. It features a tourist explaining he’s from Canada and defines a Canadian as “like an American without a gun” and the other person finally understands. It’s funny but horrifying, of course. The majority of Americans are not into guns. But the ones that are…oh boy. Well, they’re willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of children to keep buying them so….they have a different calculus than the rest of us. I mean – the average number of children shot per year in this country is a little under 8000. PER YEAR.

And, of course, I know, I know, not all gun-owners. The farmer who needs a gun to shoot wild feral hogs or whatever – that’s fine. I guess I won’t melt your gun since you’re going to save us from marauding porcine creatures.

But the culture that encourages young clueless men to buy guns and then go use them? That culture needs to be melted down. I keep thinking of the odd little explanation for the shooting in The Front Page/His Girl Friday. Have you seen these films? Or the play? The reporters work out that the odd little sweaty man ended up shooting the gun because he believed in “production for use.” That is, as a communist, he believed that things should be used for that they were built for and the gun, being built for shooting, must be shot. I think a lot of gun-owners are like that communist. They shoot their guns because guns are made to be shot. I bet all those gun-owners wouldn’t like to be called a bunch of communists for shooting their guns.

We have a lot of guns in this country and like Chekhov’s famous gun – if you show us a gun in the first act, it’s just got to be fired by the end of the show. The one surefire way to keep people from getting shot up is to not have guns around with which to shoot them.

Like, let’s go back to the feral hogs for a second. Let’s say there were a group of people who really wanted to have some around the town and every time someone suggested that maybe they were dangerous and attacking people left and right, they’d threaten to sic a feral hog on them. A country full of feral hogs is now Feral Hog Land just because some zealous hog lovers felt entitled to them. You can’t domesticate a feral hog, that’s the whole deal with them. They are feral. Same is true for an assault rifle. An assault rifle is an understatement for what it actually does. It is a mass murder rifle. They have to go. And the more folks threaten to use them against those who would seek to take them away, the more apparent it is that they have to go.

Melt the guns and never more to fire them.

I did a search for Melt the Guns and this was the only readily available image. It DOES melt things. And it IS a gun. In the future, our only guns will be the kind that melt glue for us, okay?

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On the Town: Old Fashioned Fun or Old Fashioned Sexism

When I first moved to NYC, I saw a production of On the Town on Broadway, directed by George C. Wolfe and featuring Lea DeLaria. I was skeptical about it but found myself delighted and uplifted by what felt like a very old fashioned musical. Earlier this year, I got to see a new production of the show and this time I found the old-fashioned sexism completely alienating and frustrating. I was baffled by this difference in my responses to the same musical and have been trying to understand how these two productions could have such different effects.

First, of course, I’m different than I was. A lot has happened since I arrived in NYC in 1998. But I’m not significantly MORE a-tuned to my feminist lens than I used to be. I’m more public about it now, sure, but I was closer to those women’s studies classes, then. So – I don’t think it’s my feminism that’s changed.

I have always had some (seemingly) contradictory impulses – the feminist and the nostalgic. It’s not all bell hooks and Gloria Steinem over here with me. I love old movies. I could watch The Thin Man series again and again. Give me a Katherine Hepburn film or His Girl Friday for the 100th time – yes please. And while some of those films feature really ballsy gutsy women – they are still dated. Myrna Loy isn’t the detective in The Thin Man, her husband is. But I’m fully able to set aside the old fashioned ideas and enjoy myself for movies like The Philadelphia Story. I even loved the film of On the Town. (I mean, come on – Gene Kelley and Frank Sinatra?!)

But I just could not get over the sexism in this production in On the Town. Perhaps it’s because they updated some things for a contemporary audience. There was much more frank acknowledgement of sexuality, for example. We got hip thrusts and dick jokes. Homosexuality was acknowledged and enjoyed – but the gender roles did not get an update. In fact, it felt like we got a reinforcement, a revival of some 50s style ideals.

Is it in the text that the Miss Turnstyles pageant features the lead dancer donning an apron and preparing a meal for her future husband? Maybe but I don’t recall it from before. The production I saw in 1998 didn’t take anything it did too seriously. While it was very earnest – it did nothing in earnest. This is a fine line, I acknowledge, but I think it’s an important one in this sort of gender roles throw-back situation.

The thing I remembered most about the 1998 production was Lea DeLaria’s portrayal of Hildy, the taxi driver. I found some clips of her performance and it gave me an opportunity to compare the two productions. The song “I Can Cook, Too” is some sexist shit if you look at it earnestly. Its lyrics advertise a woman’s worth solely as a home-maker and cook. You take it seriously at your peril.

Oh, I can cook, too, on top of the rest,
My seafood’s the best in the town.
And I can cook, too.
My fish can’t be beat,
My sugar’s the sweetest around.
I’m a man’s ideal of a perfect meal
Right down to the demi-tasse.
I’m a pot of joy for a hungry boy,
Baby, I’m cookin’ with gas.
Oh, I’m a gumdrop,

A sweet lollipop,
A brook trout right out of the brook,
And what’s more, baby, I can cook!
Some girls make magazine covers,
Some girls keep house on a dime,
Some girls make wonderful lovers,
But what a lucky find I’m.
I’d make a magazine cover,
I do keep house on a dime,
I make a wonderful lover,
I should be paid overtime!

DeLaria’s 1998 version has nothing to do with cooking. At all. It’s almost as if the lyrics are incidental. You can hear and understand them but it is 100% about the subtext. The character knows she’s hot stuff and she’s going to let us (and her conquest) know. The extra layer of this performance was that Lea DeLaria has a very public persona as a lesbian. We (most of us) know how much DeLaria is NOT going to be “a pot of joy for a hungry boy.” Watching her subvert both the song and her persona is what makes it all the more subversive and fun.

Alysha Umphress, who played Hildy in the recent Broadway production, has an extraordinary voice and is a stellar performer. But when she sang this song, many aspects of the production turned her into “a pot of joy for a hungry boy.” The musical arrangements encourage us to see her as a sweet, harmless ingenue with some sexy decorations. The tempo is much slower. It’s nice! Pretty!

There’s nothing “nice” about the arrangements of DeLaria’s song. It blares. It drives forward. The Nancy Walker version (the original Hildy here in Bernstein’s recording) drives even more quickly. It’s like a city street. It’s noisier and more energetic than either of the revivals. It’s all edges. Umphress’ version is all curves.

The choreography, too,  gave Umphress some Betty Boop style demonstrations of how she is “a man’s ideal of a perfect meal.” She seemed like she had to genuinely convince this sailor to sleep with her. (Jesse Tyler Ferguson who played the sailor in 1998 looked convinced by DeLaria’s Hildy and delighted from the start.) This 2015 Hildy was choreographed to bend over to show off her ass in a coy “Oh, is that my ass?” way.

Now, let me pause for a moment to discuss this particular bit of choreography. In the film Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon pulls it off with self-awareness and aplomb. (Although this same character does not so fare so well in the extremely sexist stage version of this show. Skip it, my fellow feminists. It’s a horror show.). Aside from the ladies in Legally Blonde, I’ve almost never seen this move look good. And almost every woman had to do it this production.

Why does it look awkward? Because in real life almost every woman learns from an early age how to be extremely conscious of bending over. On the Broad Experience podcast, a woman who works in construction talked about her hard and fast rule for herself to never bend over to look at something at work. She always squats or sits. She says it would make her “too vulnerable” to bend over. Any character who does it “by accident” is clearly not doing it by accident and if they’re doing it on purpose, it signals to most women that she is offering herself up as an object. Not a person to have sex with – just an object, to ogle.

This is fundamentally the difference for me between these two performances of “I Can Cook, Too.” Lea DeLaria is nobody’s object and still signals very clearly that whoever sleeps with her is going to have some sexy fun. Umphress has to negotiate a very tricky switch between being object and subject, between expressing her own desire – and somehow advertising herself as desirable.

This confusion between subject and object was all magnified by the set up they gave her for the number. The production made it clear that she cannot, in fact, cook. She doesn’t know how to work the oven and her frying pan is dusty. The effect of this is to make it seem that Hildy is lying about everything and it makes it seem like she’s probably not so great in the sack either when it comes to it. So a song, that for DeLaria was an empowering sexy showstopper, in this newer production, while the skill and musicality of the performer earns lots of applause for its performer, is ultimately disempowering for the character. The applause was weirdly uncomfortable applause.

Fundamentally, the style of the production seems to be the key whether it’s a fun old-fashioned romp or a discomforting throw-back. When everything is snappy and just a tiny bit self-aware, the sexism is just old fashioned amusement. When it seems like it’s all meant to be taken seriously, it dies.

I don’t mean to flog a dead horse by talking about this newer production, it’s already closed and looked due to close when I saw it. But as we continue to revive the old stories, there are things I think it makes sense to pay attention to and make adjustments for. We already do this with classics like Shakespeare. You can’t stage The Taming of the Shrew without thinking through how you’re going to deal with the problem of a play that celebrates a woman’s subjugation. You have to have a perspective on it.

I think the same is true of the old standards in musical theatre. You have to give it a little think before you do it or over half of your audience is going to think it’s just old fashioned instead of fun nostalgia. And those audiences might not come back for the next one.

In its way, On the Town could be seen as super progressive. Two of the three female leads are frank in their desire and do not hesitate to pursue it. The show doesn’t punish them for this as so many stories (even now) will. The other female lead, while she isn’t the pursuer, does have a job as a “Cooch dancer” which makes all three of the women in the show not your usual ingénues. I think it could be possible to do feminist On the Town. The female characters are BOSS but they weren’t this time. Maybe for the next go round.

I look forward to a time when Broadway starts to get with the current moment, when more women can direct there – even the feminist ones – ones who can update our old fashioned catchy musicals with some contemporary smarts.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Lea DeLaria in the 1997 Shakespeare in the Park production of On The Town at the Delacorte Theater, directed by George C. Wolfe. Photo credit: Michal Daniel

Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Lea DeLaria in the 1997 Shakespeare in the Park production of On The Town at the Delacorte Theater, directed by George C. Wolfe. Photo credit: Michal Daniel

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