If you’re a friend of mine, or even a genial acquaintance, I’ve probably bored you at least once with my chatter about the pop- and folk-singing women of the ‘60s and ‘70s. This essay is an exercise in exploring the persistence of that chatter by focusing on one of those women—Dusty Springfield. More to the point, I’m interested in why Dusty captivates me in particular, and in general why these camp icons become such compelling figures.
What is it about Dusty Springfield? She inspires rabid devotion, rapt appreciation; she’s undoubtedly an icon. Dusty! Queen of the Postmods, Annie Randall’s excellent investigation of Dusty as musician, performer, and icon, includes a substantial discussion of Dusty as discourse. “Central to the discourse of Dusty’s virtuosity,” Randall claims, “is the ‘moment of first hearing,’ the exact time when fans recall being ‘stopped in their tracks’ by Dusty’s voice” (119). This is true for me as well as any fan: I can identify the moment, so rapturous as to feel very nearly epiphanic, to feel like a conversation—the moment at which I felt myself to be conclusively, enthusiastically, irrevocably a Dusty devotee. I’d listened to her before, liked her, would have considered myself a fan, and yet: My “moment of first hearing” was unmistakably my first viewing (the visual is an important factor) of the promotional video for 1970’s “Lost.” This is a ridiculous video: an inexplicable glowing, three-dimensional cube frames Dusty, bedecked with one of her unmistakable bouffants, dressed in literally glittering teal with what looks like an ankh dangling from her neck. But when Dusty sings—“I was a sad and lonely girl / All alone in this big world / Lost in a state of misery / Not a soul to comfort me”— I, too, am lost. Here one can view—can view and revel in—all of the major components of Dusty’s image: the exaggerated costume, including hair and makeup, which many have linked to drag; the physical performance, including gestures, which Randall has brilliantly connected to nineteenth-century stage melodrama; and her emotive, instantly recognizable voice. I delight in this complex performance. The song is, I will admit it, rather insipid, as many of her songs are; but her vocal performance remains, as nearly always, expressive and sensitive. On the other hand, her appearance might seem to belie any exquisiteness of voice: Dusty’s performance represents a kind of female drag. As Randall says, “The genius of Dusty’s brand of camp is that several axes are camped at once, all staged to collide in the intersection of a pop song’s performance. And like all camp, the core seriousness of its content is thoroughly costumed by fascinating surface elements and wrapped in reflexive wit” (143). Dusty’s camp is complex and intentional. I use my personal experience with “Lost” as a way into a discussion of Dusty, but also of camp, taste, and how one relates to the world. That’s a lot, I know: I have few answers, but many questions.
But camp itself remains a tricky term. Susan Sontag’s well-known “Notes on Camp” (1964) attempts to “snare a sensibility in words” (276). For Sontag, camp is “the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not” (279). As a sensibility, camp admires the artificial, the obviously phony. As a kind of art, “Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary. But extraordinary in the sense, often, of being special, glamorous” (284). Sontag suggests that the best examples of camp are not just failures but catastrophes: artworks that are failed attempts to do something extraordinary.
Another essay by Sontag herself complicates how camp works. In “On Style,” she names style as the most significant feature of a work of art. “The notion of a style-less, transparent art is one of the most tenacious fantasies of modern culture” (7), she argues. Style is not mere accessory to content; in fact, style is more integral to our experience of a work of art than its subject matter. As she points out, “The satisfactions of Paradise Lost for us do not lie in its views on God and man, but in the superior kinds of energy, vitality, expressiveness which are incarnated in the poem” (22). To use another example, Joni Mitchell and Taylor Swift both sing about love, but the former’s “A Case of You,” a song of stunning expressiveness and sensitivity, is very clearly the superior work to, say, the latter’s recent “Out of the Woods.” It is not in a discussion of love gone sour that the pleasures of “A Case of You” lie, but in the voluptuous manifestation of the subject.
Sontag suggests the term “stylization” to discuss works that possess a certain ambivalence toward their subject matter: “what is present in a work of art precisely when an artist does make the by no means inevitable distinction between matter and manner, theme and form” (19). In stylized works, there is a distance between the work’s content and the way in which that work is presented, which may be manifested as, for example, irony. Art is most often stylized when its subject is not new, is capable of being exhausted. Stylized art—the enjoyment of which she links to “camp” taste—cannot be truly great, for it is “palpably an art of excess, lacking harmoniousness” (20). To use another example: Mommie Dearest is heavily stylized because of the dissonance between its sobering subject, child abuse, and the abject way in which it is presented, Faye Dunaway’s melodramatic portrayal of Joan Crawford. The film utterly mistreats its subject matter and for that reason falls squarely in the realm of camp.
For Sontag, then, and for many, what is camp is unintentional. One identifies it; one shouldn’t make it. I can speak from my own experience. I delight in trash, often music, created with the utmost seriousness and yet delivered with maximum ineptness. The ineptness is what makes it memorable, and delightful—and camp. So the most “successful” and satisfying works of camp must be naïve, unintentional. I get the sense that, at least for Sontag, the intentional—the self-consciously ridiculous or exaggerated—is not doing the “work” of camp. This work, on a surface level, delights in failure. But this delight points to something else, perhaps a reveling in erosions of or attacks on culture in general. Wayne Koestenbaum suggests this possibility:
Susan Sontag defined “camp” as the anarchic jolt we experience in the face of artistic artifacts that try to be serious and fail. But it is not the object’s or the artist’s failure that makes the artifact campy: the camp sensation is produced by our own joy in having discovered the object, in having been chosen, solicited, by it. Experiencing the camp glow is a way of reversing one’s abjection, and, by witnessing the depletion of cultural monuments, experiencing one’s own power to fill degraded artifacts to the brim with meanings. (117)
Having been chosen: My love of Dusty Springfield is a special sort of relationship. It feels special, at least. Take this video, for example: a 1966 performance of “Bring Him Back.” The song is, well, ‘60s pop: she’s singing after love’s end; she wants her boyfriend back:
Oh, bring him back
If he’s too much for you
And you don’t know just what to do
Just send him right on back to me
‘Cause I'm still the fool I used to be
As she well knows, she’s making a fool of herself, begging for her lost love’s return. That’s how the song goes, anyway: a woman professing herself to be a fool and acting in a silly way anyway. But Dusty takes it a step further: she knows how insipid this song is. Those melodramatic gestures: she runs a finger down her cheek while singing “Been crying since he walked out the door,” raises the back of her hand to her forehead at “Bring him back!” The knowing smiles. The male dancers! Two lanky men dressed all in black flutter in and shake their hips. In their dance with Dusty, she is the center, they her lovely back-up. They exist to be looked at. She sings “Let me be his little toy,” but you get the sense that they are hers. Randall agrees with my assessment:
The male dancers are feminized the instant they dance into the frame: The focus is entirely on their bodies and their distinctly unmasculine movements, thus transferring the camera’s typical gaze from the female to the male object. Reinforcing this reversal is the fact that they, like typical go-go girls, are also mute; only Dusty gets to sing, along with her offstage female backing singers. The boys’ moves are accompanied by Dusty’s full-throated belting voice . . . . The voice takes over male territory in its attack . . . and it contrasts sharply not only with Dusty’s hyperfeminine appearance but also with the gestures of the male dancers. (144)
About Dusty’s voice: it is loud and belting, and it may take on a male strength, but she performs the song earnestly. She is, as ever, expressive and graceful. She still manages to perform the song “straight,” is what I’m saying, for all her camp winks and nods. Dusty is in control; this is a complex, well-considered camp performance. As per Sontag, Dusty mistreats her great subject, heterosexual love and desire. All the camp elements of the performance create ironic distance between form and content; thus the song is heavily stylized.
But Koestenbaum is right to invoke the personal element of experiencing camp. I feel joy when I watch this video. When Dusty smiles, I can almost believe that her smile is meant for me. She knows what she’s doing, and if I look into her digitally rendered eyes it is as though we mutually acknowledge not just the complexities of her performance, but the silliness of what she’s parodying. In Koestenbaum’s terms, she’s depleting cultural monuments—songs that tell women to feel dejected, to plead that their boyfriends return, to let themselves be objects. She depletes them of their “straight” meanings—a loaded phrase—by mocking them even as she performs the song earnestly. And those monuments remain to be filled: What does such a song mean to me? I, who am not a woman, and who as a gay man would never be the cause of a woman’s lovelorn anguish? I can consider what this song says about love, and reject it, or I can even recognize the anguish I have felt. Or neither of these: if Dusty depletes a monument of meaning, it remains, as Koestenbaum says, empty, to be filled with a multiplicity of meanings.
Camp resists; as a sensibility it responds not just to the failure of attempts to create art but our frequent failures in our daily lives, in our social structures. I think Dusty’s camp succeeds even if it is intentional. In watching her, we also watch her responding to the failure of seriousness, and what in the world could be more serious than heterosexual love?
But why do I like Dusty? Why me, why her? Why does anybody like the things they like? Pierre Bourdieu attempts to provide one answer. He assigns tastes to a sort of grid, one’s position determined by various demographic categories: age, gender, education, income. He claims, “the consumption of goods no doubt always presupposes a labour of appropriation, to different degrees depending on the goods and the consumers; or, more precisely, that the consumer helps to produce the product he consumes, by a labour of identification and decoding which, in the case of a work of art, may constitute the whole of the consumption and gratification, and which requires time and dispositions acquired over time” (100). As a consumer, I consume what I identify with, and what I identify with—my place in the social grid—can be deduced by looking at certain facts. Because I and others show our affiliation with or investment in certain kinds of art by spending our money on it, that sort of art can continue to exist. For Bourdieu, our cultural “choices”—our tastes—result from two significant factors: cultural and economic capital. Cultural capital derives chiefly from one’s level of education, and economic capital from one’s social origin and profession. This is a useful way to understand how taste works, why we make the cultural choices we make, and yet I think Bourdieu misses a few things. Bourdieu relies on the objective facts about a person’s life, as if she can be reduced to the sum of those facts. But something’s missing. Maybe I like fine books because I can afford them, because I have the education to read and comprehend them. But that’s not why I like Dusty. (One factor is the Internet, which makes much of culture more accessible to a greater portion of the population and thus does a great deal to disrupt his analysis. I likely wouldn’t have discovered Dusty if not for the Internet.)
According to Heidegger, moods always affect one’s relationship to the world. (I recognize that I am now turning to a discussion of possibly the least campy person I can imagine.) He writes, “This possibility of mood, too, discloses the burdensome character of Da-sein even when it alleviates that burden. Mood makes manifest ‘how one is and is coming along.’ In this ‘how one is’ being in a mood brings being to its ‘there’” (135). Mood reveals how we relate to ourselves and certain aspects of our existence. “An elevated mood,” Heidegger says, “can alleviate the manifest burden of being” (135). Happiness, of course, affects the way I go about my day. If I’m in a good mood, obligations feel less stressful, less pressing, tasks feel easier. It’s a lighter way of moving through the world.
Never very light himself, Heidegger is principally interested in the “mood” of anxiety. Here I am indebted to Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness, which also grapples with Heidegger’s discussion of moods, specifically anxiety and boredom. In the mood of anxiety, I relate myself to the inevitability of my death. As Kotsko says, “When I dwell in the mood of anxiety, time becomes more than an indifferent measurement or an objective duration—it has an existential urgency, because it is going to come to a definitive and irrevocable end” (13). Where usually time passes relatively unnoticed in our lives, in the mood of anxiety one feels detached or alienated from time.
It seems to me boring, insipid as the lyrics of one of Dusty’s songs, to declare her and camp subversive, or rebellious. Maybe I just grow tired of hearing the word subversive. But I think there’s a way of going about it differently. Maybe camp is in fact a sort of mood, which colors how one relates to the world. Or maybe one discovers and responds to camp under the influence of some particular mood. Writing about opera, Koestenbaum offers an explanation of why gay men tend to be drawn to it and other certain kinds of music: “Forbidden sexualities stay vague because they fear detection and punishment. Historically, music has been defined as mystery and miasma, as implicitness rather than explicitness, and so we have hid inside music; in music we can come out without coming out, we can reveal without saying a word. Queers identify with shadow because no one can prosecute a shadow” (190). This “camp mood” is a way of relating to the world, in which one feels oneself detached, alienated. This feels like anxiety. But this is not exactly anxiety, at least not in Heideggerian terms: anxiety has to do with time. But as moods go, it feels similar. One feels alienated from—what, the body? Yes, maybe, the body and its desires. It’s a little different from anxiety and boredom, because those two have to do more with ineluctable facts about our existence: that we are beings who move in time and who experience external stimuli. This mood has more to do with culture. Then again, desire, though influenced by culture—assignable to a position in Bourdieu’s grid, perhaps—seems about as ineluctable as that we all will die.
Queerness slides between Bourdieu’s neat demographic categories, seeks itself elsewhere. In music it finds a match. Dusty can perform a song as straight as anything even while infusing it with every imaginable level of campy parody. She moves gracefully through the world while, almost covertly, resisting it. It’s the implicitness rather than explicitness that makes her camp effective—which is what makes any camp effective. Even as she sings “Bring Him Back,” her wink to me, to you, to the viewer, lets us know how unseriously she regards the whole business. Bring who back? Maybe I love Dusty specifically because of this dance between the explicit and the implicit, the light and the shadow, the straight and the queer. Enjoying her music feels like, beyond the pleasure I take in the music, a private joke. I move through the world quite seriously, but I also fail in many ways to take the world, or my culture, seriously. Its structures weren’t made for me. They weren’t made for Dusty, either.
- Dan Froid
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. 1979. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit. 1953. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: SUNY Press, 1996. Print.
Koestenbaum, Wayne. The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. 1993. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 1993. Print.
Kotsko, Adam. Awkwardness. Zero Books, 2010. Print.
Randall, Annie J. Dusty! Queen of the Postmods. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. 1966. New York: Dell Publishing: 1981. Print.