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Walking on the "Wild Side"? '20 Feet From Stardom' & the Black Female Gaze

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by Sikivu Hutchinson
March 25, 2014 1:00 PM
5 Comments
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Still from "Twenty Feet From Stardom"
Still from "Twenty Feet From Stardom"

In the 1972 song “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” Lou Reed evokes the paternalistic image of “colored girls” cooing in the background to a hipster tale of New York debauchery.  Using Reed’s homage as its introduction, white director Morgan Neville’s bittersweet documentary “20 Feet from Stardom” attempts to bring black female back-up singers into the foreground with both moving and problematic effect.

From the 1950’s to the present, white America “walked on the wild side” via the dulcet tones and searing power of black women’s voices.  Then as now, black R& B music was often the "colorful" backdrop to lily white pop culture scenes of “all-American” revelry, romance, and heroism. For the white consumer of the postwar Jim Crow era, the commercial rise of rock and R&B transformed racial otherness into a more mainstream adventure; a resort vacation to unexplored vistas of self-discovery that anyone with a radio or a few cents for a 45 record could take. As the world's most rabid consumers of black culture, white folks' imperialist yearnings to be “black” (from Jack Kerouac to Norman Mailer to Sandra Bernhard) emerge from this grand obsession with the supposed wild, raw, unfettered, close-to-the-bone emotion and physicality of the Black woman belting out soulful paeans to life and love.  Minus the racial terrorism, segregation and ghettoization, blackness has always been a sexy place for whites "eating the other".

Black women’s back-up singing was crucial to the evolution of modern rock and R&B, buttressing songs as disparate as the Crystal’s “He’s a Rebel” and the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” by turning them into richly textured classics.  “20 Feet” captures the deep travesty of obscurity, marginalization and, often, poverty, that these pioneering artists faced.  Spotlighting multi-generational artists such as Merry Clayton (who did the powerhouse vocal on Gimme Shelter), Darlene Love, the Waters family, Tata Vega, Lisa Fisher and Judith Hill, the film’s broad historical sweep shows both how much and how little has changed.  Women of color back-up singers are still treated like expendable objects, eye candy and soulful exotics while fighting tooth and nail for recognition and a shot at center stage.  

The trajectory of the fiercely talented Darlene Love is the movie’s template and touchstone.  Royally swindled by famed producer and (now) incarcerated killer Phil Spector, Love was the voice of many of the sixties most hummable R&B classics.  While her vocals on the smash hit "He's a Rebel" made her a sought after studio singer, she was cheated out of the opportunity to appear in public singing her own work.  Love describes the indignity of seeing the Crystals become the public face of her song; lip synching to a number one record while she battled Spector for her just due.  As has been well-documented, exploitation of black artists was institutionalized in the music industry.  Elvis Presley and scores of “trailblazing” white artists and producers built their careers, empires and international stardom on the backs of uncompensated and un-credited black artists.  Nonetheless, the film is largely silent about the mammoth battles black artists waged for recognition and royalties.  Love’s decades-long fight with Spector is its only nod to the insidious racial and gender politics that drove capitalist exploitation in the industry.

Similarly, there is only fleeting critical commentary on the sexist objectification of black women vocalists and the way in which this ultimately stunted their careers.  Footage of the Ike and Tina Turner revue is used to highlight stereotypes of feral black female hypersexuality, underscoring the bind that women who wanted to be successful in the industry faced.  Singer Claudia Lennear, a former “Ikette” and Rolling Stones back-up, comments on the requirement that the Turners’ back-up vocalists be scantily clad.  She then limply deflects questions about her own decision to pose for Playboy.  Unfortunately, the film never deepens its appraisal of sexism (especially its implications for the modern day “video ho” phenomenon, an image of black women that is one of rap and hip hop’s most enduring and degrading global exports).  Reflecting on Turner and her rise to fame in her piece “Selling Hot Pussy,” bell hooks wrote “The black female body gains attention only when it is synonymous with accessibility, availability; when it is sexually deviant…Turner’s singing career has been based on the construction of the image of black female sexuality that is made synonymous with wild animalistic lust…Ike’s decision to create the wild black woman was perfectly compatible with prevailing representations of black female sexuality in a white supremacist society .”  Hooks’ perspective would have been a welcome antidote to the ribald lip-smacking ignorance of USC professor Todd Boyd who comments that Ike played the role of the “pimp” to his stable of “hos” (i.e., Tina and the Ikettes).  As if to confirm this, the camera cuts to a shot of Turner, Lennear and  the Ikettes gyrating and bending over suggestively in micro minis and high heels at a raucous outdoor concert.

Hooks notes that Tina Turner’s image was shaped by Ike’s “pornographic misogynist imagination” and his obsession with jungle films. The subtext of the film is black women’s resistance to this brand of sexualization and the regime of the male gaze (corporate, white, ageist, mainstream).  It is a narrative that develops despite the political limitations of the white director who is clearly enthralled with the “mystique” of black soul.  This tension is reflected early on in the dichotomy the film constructs between mainstream cultural norms of white feminine respectability and “authentic” black femininity.  Commenting on the origins of the back-up singer tradition, the narrator contrasts the restrained primness of white female vocalists with the “raw” abandon of the mostly gospel trained black female vocalists.  “We called them ‘readers,’’ Darlene Love says, referencing the white mainstream method of simply singing the notes on the page without injecting passion and spontaneity into the delivery.  Reinforcing the stereotype of “natural” “God-given” black soul singing talent, the film does not explore the musical training and vocal instruction some of these black women artists undoubtedly received.  Nonetheless, the sheer discipline and tenacity of the back-up singers is conveyed by their testimony about marathon all-night recording sessions, demanding concert tours and exploitative conditions.

While the commentary each singer provides is illuminating, it would be inconceivable for a retrospective on white male singers to feature virtually all black women musicians, historians, technicians and producers as subject experts on their careers. However, this is the “benign” structure that “20 Feet” sets up.  For nearly two hours the women appear through the eyes of their mostly white male employers— rock and pop superstars like Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Chris Botti—and assorted white male subject experts.   Presumably hooks, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, Michele Wallace, Joan Morgan, Tricia Rose and scores of other black feminist scholars and music historians were unavailable to critically contextualize these women’s experiences.  This gross deficit makes “20 Feet From Stardom” a meta-reflection of the constant struggle women of color must wage for political visibility, historical validation and culturally responsive scholarship.  Attempting to evoke the social upheaval of the sixties, the film trots out stock images of the Black Panthers as well as Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ iconic raised fist salute at the 1968 Olympics to evoke black consciousness.  We catch a fleeting glimpse of Kathleen Cleaver but no other black women figures or activists are evoked.  It would have been powerful to hear what Cleaver, an esteemed legal scholar and feminist critic, would have had to say about Merry Clayton’s decision to sing back-up on the Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1974 song “Sweet Home Alabama,” a racist homage to Dixie. Clayton ruefully critiques “Alabama” and describes the force she put into her vocals as an act of resistance, reflecting the contradictions of an era in which black women artists felt they had to conform to visions of white supremacy in order to survive.  But apparently giving this narrative a critical, scholarly black feminist voice would have been too much of a walk on the “wild side”.


Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and the newly released Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels.


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5 Comments

  • kymejones | August 17, 2014 12:48 AMReply

    I saw the film tonight didn't finish it... there certainly needed to be more depth and the scholars be they black women or Bruce or whoever needed to have some serious knowledge of the subject to really tell this story. I'd have loved to see Luther Vandross introduced as having sung the beginning of You Are the Sunshine of My Life instead of through the Bowie connection. And should Walk on the Wild Side, whose "coloured girls" were really a California trio of white singers called Thunderthighs whose own story of being backups who aspired to stardom might have made an interesting tidbit in the film. It seemed underdone but I'd have liked it to be more scholarly and a little less anecdotal! Also... I'd quibble with the Sweet Home Alabama reference. While the constant popularity of the song is certainly an expression of white supremacy in most minds... I think the writer's original intent was to create a character to upbraid non-southerners who sanctimoniously ascribe all american racism to the south while ignoring that of the rest of the country and hemisphere. I say this because the lead singer of the band was a friend of Neil Young and wasn't from Alabama.

  • VFDeffekt | March 31, 2014 3:04 PMReply

    Thanks for this. As of right now, this is the only critique of its type of 20 Feet From Stardom on the Internet.

    I was also very frustrated by the film. There is no question these singers are incredibly gifted but the film really danced around crucial issues of race, gender, celebrity, and capitalism. Certainly film producers want funding, distribution and Oscars so I think I'll be waiting a LONG time before anyone ever makes a film that offers the kind of serious critique I would like to see.

    Don't get me wrong: I was thrilled to see Darlene Love get the recognition she deserved and I felt the film gave long overdue credit to musicians who have contributed so much to the culture of the United States. As much as I loved watching and hearing these musicians' stories I was left with the feeling that the film was a puff piece in that it let the music industry and white culture in general off the hook.

    This isn't to say that there was no acknowledgment of these women's struggles (Love and Spector, Clayton, Lennear) but the film only lightly touched on the larger social context. That whole "Sweet Home Alabama" section not only skirted the issue but was kind of garbled and incoherent.

    For me, the film's shallow treatment of racial/gender politics and music industry economics made the brief mention of Claudia Lennear's Playboy shoot come off as at least mildly judgmental. As Dr. Hutchinson points out, she "limply" deflected and the story moved on, implying that there was something wrong with her "choice" to pose.

    Is there really no connection between Lennear's Playboy appearance and her remarks about trying to get a solo career off the ground while figuring out how to pay her band, raise her child, and pay the bills? Lennear is not the only female musician to use her body to make a living: see Courtney Love and Kathleen Hannah. If our white (male) supremacist society almost exclusively values women of color for their bodies, I wonder if Lennear's "choices" and "opportunities" were most likely pretty limited: sing, strip, or starve.

    Furthermore, the star/background singer binary that structure's the film's narrative obscures another question. Lisa Fischer says that networking for the sake of your career feels "slimy". I know lots of people in lots of fields who feel this way, musicians included. To sell your gifts to advance your career seems coldly calculating and insincere, a betrayal of the music. The film suggests that some background singers feel "spiritual" about their "artistry”.

    Fine, but why is the only choice stardom or obscurity? What about making a steady living as a working musician?

    The problem here might be that if the film were to delve into these questions, it would reveal the fact that most "session" and "background" musicians are paid by the job, whereas producers and "stars" receive "points", i.e. royalties, on the sales of recordings.

    Certainly Fischer has made a living by singing with the Stones. However, what is her salary compared to the rest of the band? Does she at least make enough to get her through the times when she's not touring with them? Similarly, was Merry Clayton ever paid royalties or "points" for her track on the Stones' "Gimme Shelter"? What kind of job security do these women have?

    Even if they do have some security, most artists do not, and the music industry, like most industries, trades in plenty of unfair and exploitative labor practices. As African-American, female artists, I imagine background singers get a triple helping of these labor practices, something the film only glossed.

    Also, the film's narrative arc, embodied by Darlene Love, affirms an American Dream rags-to-riches story. In other words, with enough grit and determination, we can all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and overcome all obstacles. This narrative arc suggests that Love's story is the rule rather than the exception, obscuring the pushback Black artists struggle against and the extreme difficulty for anyone to "make it" in a capitalist society, much less Black artists trying to succeed in a white supremacist and capitalist society.

    Furthermore, the film suggests that those who don't make it don't because they "choose" not to, in some cases because of a lack of self-worth. The focus on Fischer's "choice" to remain "20 feet from stardom" rather than become a "star," due the fact that stardom feels uncomfortable to her, puts all of the responsibility on the individual without examining the drawbacks of the industrial and social structures that shape artists’ careers and opportunities.

    A scene at the end of the film underscores the focus on the individual at the expense of a wider critique, when the female minister says that Black women need to assert their worth. The minister makes an excellent point but I wish the film had stepped in and pointed out that this sense of unworthiness may have at least a little to do with living in a white patriarchy and working in a white-owned music industry. In other words, the film focuses more on individual self-esteem and "choice" and less on the structures that shape and limit the background singers' "choices". The film also skirts but never really unpacks the idea that there might be something sociopathic about stars' "egos" and that there might be something ethically problematic about the ruthless, Machiavellian machinations necessary to make it as a superstar.

    Finally, this film has put the nail in the coffin in my belief in Mick Jagger's humanity. I'm now convinced that some alien body snatcher pod being occupies Jagger's meat suit, so vapid, conniving, and shallow is he. While Sting comes across as more or less human, he also is in fine form as a sanctimonious blowhard.

  • Alias | February 14, 2014 4:35 PMReply

    I feel conflicted about your commentary. I agree that it would have been nice to have some of the aforementioned black scholars speak to the times and provide a greater context than what Boyd did, but I also believe you give too little credit to the women, themselves, who did talk about race, gender and their trials and tribulations. Although, perhaps, not to the degree or in as critical a way as a PhD in sociology would have for your liking.

    However, I have to strongly agree with you, as many of the white male artists/producers who were interviewed did discuss the co-option of black music/sound and its role in studio sessions and music of the day. British artists, especially, like the Stones, the Beatles, the Who, and others have always been very forthcoming in their admiration, and adoption, of so-called, race or black music, of the times, and it's role and influence on their own music (I've seen too many docs/specials to name in which they attribute blues singers that most black Americans aren't even familiar with).

    Finally, you're completely off base in the extension of your analysis to today's R&B or Hip-Hop music. Black women, now -- and for some time -- do have control over their image. Unfortunately, many CHOSE to be sexualized or ghetto-ized or whatever "ized" or "ism" you want to apply.

    As an example: Judith Hill, who was in the documentary and a contestant on "The Voice," is a TRULY talented singer who does deserve a record contract, and the world's attention. But rather than selling out (she discusses this in the doc, BTW) after people became more aware of her, from the Michael Jackson "This Is It" doc, she didn't feel it was right to capitalize on his death, and thus turned down multiple offers. This showed a lot of class, professionalism, and a solid moral compass. And won me as a fan for life.

    Additionally, you must have stepped out of the theater for a bathroom break when Lisa Fisher discussed, at length, about the burning desire one must have to move from being a back-up singer to a solo artist. Fisher tried it, for a minute, but it didn't suit her personality. She was/IS happy to be in the background.

    On the other hand you have someone like, Nikki Minaj, who is an untalented wackadoodle who does shit just to draw attention to herself (read: the blasphemous use of Malcolm X's image and a racial epithet on her latest album).

    Or, Beyonce. Now, I like some of her music. It's catchy, but when you go beyond being an entertainer and start to put yourself out there as some kind of role model for little girls -- or a feminist -- then you better be damn well prepared for the criticism, cause it's going to be coming at you fast and furious. And, frankly, Beyonce treats herself like "an expendable object."
    She objectifies herself and uses her sexuality to sell her music, herself, her brand. ...And Matthew Knowles, nor her current management, aren't holding a gun to her head.

    Again, you make some good points, and do a good job of deconstructing the film, and what was happening to the older artists (Clayton, Love, Turner, et al) back in the day, but to then mix in the current music scene (and by current I mean 1980s to the present) is really misguided. The girls in all of these horrible music videos with misogynistic rappers, they CHOSE to take off their clothes and perform whatever vile acts they're performing. NO ONE is making them do it.
    And the music business, for all intents and purposes, is basically dead. Musicians who are confident in their art and talent are no longer beholden to a record label, they're on the internet and elsewhere. ...Oh, and Jill Scott, Erykah Baduh, Tracy Chapman, Indie.Arie, Alicia Keyes have all managed to navigate very successful singing careers, while keeping their clothes on, being feminine, and projecting an image of intelligence, beauty, and capability by CHOSING (there's that word again) to project images that DEMAND they be respected by their audiences and the industry.

  • Lauren | February 13, 2014 8:02 PMReply

    WTF?! Did we watch the same film? And I'm a black woman by the way. Seriously, there's so much venom in this critique that I can't really take it serious. You speak as if the women were MUTE in the film and didn't convey their personal stories. Again, did we see the same film? Furthermore, some of your "suggestions" seem better suited for the development of a completely different film all together.

  • sondra | February 13, 2014 5:31 PMReply

    your review is right on the money. watching this film was an exercise in frustration - i was so hungry for some critical commentary on race and gender and it just never came. it's unfortunate because this is such a fascinating topic for a documentary.

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