“Distaff Elvis”

Peter Cooper has a great article on Wanda Jackson in which he refers to her as “like a distaff Elvis.” I actually think, as far as turns of phrase go, that’s really an amazing one. Those two words–“distaff” and “Elvis” carry so much weight.

But, when I read it, it was like nails on a chalkboard.

I don’t know, it’s been bothering me all day. And I think the problem with it is that, in a fluff piece, it’s too honest. Ha ha ha. I mean, it cuts right to the heart of the matter–Jackson needs a word that explains how a person with as much talent as her never had the success of her peers working the same part of American music. Oh, right, she’s from the “distaff” side, the side that stays at home and spins, and struggles if she does not.

It’s hard to imagine how saying someone is like a “spear Wanda” would even make sense.

I don’t know. It is an amazing turn of phrase.

It just took my breath away is all.

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11 thoughts on ““Distaff Elvis”

  1. I’ve noticed that when trying to describe female artists, most critics’ references are woefully limited. Either they compare her to one of the handful other female artists who does get critical respect, or make her the “distaff” version of (insert hugely influential male artist here), thus drawing attention to her femaleness instead of her, well, talent.

  2. NM, I think just to explain it. After all, he does say that she was the most prominent female rockabilly artist of her time, so it’s not as if she wasn’t successful. Honestly, in looking at the whole sentence, I think he just used “distaff” because he’d already used female.

    But man, it hit me like a ton of bricks.

    Kathy, I guess that’s something I’d like to see critics just be honest about–just say that she didn’t have the success of her peers not because of a lack of talent, but because she is a woman.

    It’s a hard line to walk and I can’t claim to walk it any better, but another thing that stood out for me in the story is the part where Rich Kienzle says, “Janis Joplin, Pat Benatar, even Lady Gaga owe something to Wanda Jackson. She opened the door for everybody else because she had a sense not only of the musical but also of the visual. There were other great female rockers around that time, but Wanda projected this blend of sexuality and glamour on top of her vocals that was something no one else could touch.”

    But how do I know that’s true, as a reader? I assume Joplin knew who Jackson was, but I wouldn’t call Joplin glamorous. I wouldn’t call Benatar glamorous, either. And I’m not sure I would call Gaga full of sexuality, exactly. And I wouldn’t assume Benatar and Gaga know who Jackson is.

    Plus, the whole point is that Jackson never got the doors open as wide as she should have.

    PLUS (ha ha ha, I guess this is bothering me more than I thought), you know who is demonstrably influenced by Jackson, so much so that he produced her album–Jack White.

    We don’t need a made-up lineage of influence. There’s a real one right there.

    I don’t know if I’m being clear about what bothers me, but basically it’s two-fold. If we’re going to claim Jackson has some distaff history of rock & roll to which she belongs, ask some women to talk about her place in said history.

    If we’re going to talk about how Jackson, while comparable in talent to, say, Presley (a claim I don’t know that I agree with), was never as successful as her peers because of her gender, but has had enormous cult influence, then just make that argument.

    All that being said, I caught a couple of “True Blue” era Madonna videos and that made me wonder about a Madonna-Jackson connection.

  3. I guess what I mean is that, if these women were influenced by Jackson, I, as a reader, need a little more about how. I’m not hearing it musically, exactly, and I’m not seeing it. Just because they’re all powerful or something?

    That doesn’t cut it for me.

  4. Well, the “Wanda Jackson is an unrecognized influence on all subsequent female performers” meme is straight from the mouth of Jack White, so you need to consider it primarily as a publicity pitch. You know, “why should I care about Wanda Jackson if I don’t already?” “Why? Because she influenced all these other women who you do care about!” If Kienzle is echoing it, that just means that White has been successful in getting the idea out there.

    That said, I do think she was something of an examplar of the “oh, you say good girls shouldn’t act like I do? Then I’ll be bad, even worse than you expect” style of female rocker. I don’t know whether that makes her an influence on later women who took the same route, or whether it’s an old trope that all of them including her followed instinctively, but I do see a real connection there.

    Oh, and Janis Joplin was remarkably glamorous. It was hippie glamor, not mainstream glamor, but it was glamor.

  5. Well, I’m not saying there’s not a real connection there. I don’t know. I’m just saying that it’s not self-evident. And since it’s not self-evident, I’d just like a little illumination. You’ve done more in the comments here to say what that connection might be than the article does, for sure.

    If there are actual influences, that’s cool. But the alternative is pretty common ground, isn’t it? Someone makes some shit up folks wish was true or sounds like it should/could be true and that’s women’s history until it’s debunked.

    I mean, I guess you could argue that that’s how all histories are…ha! But you know what I mean. If there’s two things you hear about in women’s histories we ought to be suspicious of it’s unbroken pagan lineages and wide-spread actual witch killings.

    My fear is that folks are trying to construct an unbroken pagan lineage of sorts for Jackson.

    Ha.

    I’m actually not sure if that metaphor is apt, but I love it so much I’m leaving it.

  6. Oh, I’m not defending the idea of an unbroken chain of influence. As I said, I see it as mostly a marketing device, at least in that absolute formulation. I mean, she performed rockabilly, which is no direct musical influence at all on any of the other women mentioned. As to whether Pat Benatar or Debbie Harry or Joan Jett or any of that generation were aware of her as an influence for style of self-presentation, one could ask them.

    I wonder, though — do we know whether she had any influence on Patsy Cline, in her rockabilly days?

  7. I know I’m late to this party, but I have to weigh in…simply because of late I’ve been really bothered by the throwaway use of both ‘distaff’ and ‘hysterical’.

    Both have such hugely negative anti-woman connotations, as much so as “n—-r” and “f-gg-t” have for blacks and gays. But over and over again people do not hesitate to use them. And it bothers me.

    It bothers me a lot more than it used to and I wonder if I’m too sensitive and need to get another hill to die on or if I should actually start bitching about it more. (hah. Irony intended.)

  8. Well, now, this is an interesting question. And I have spent the past twenty minutes feeling weird about it. Let me admit that my impulse is to argue that you, Coble, are being too sensitive.

    But what brings me up short is that, clearly, I got caught up on the use of the word, right. I’m breezily reading along and I get to “like a distaff Elvis” and I can’t continue reading breezily along. I’m stuck on what it means to call someone a distaff Elvis.

    I have to say, the way I cope with “hysterical” is to either use it myself in somewhat ironic fashion if it means something is funny, or to just mentally flip off the people who mean it as “upset for no good reason” or “without control of one’s body.”

    And I think my initial response of being “well, maybe it’s not that big a deal” at the same time I’m clearly experiencing it as a big deal is another coping mechanism. And as such is about not having to look the word square in the face.

    To me, it’s similar to other slurs in some ways, but it’s not quite like “cunt” or “bitch,” which I think are more similar. “Cunt” and “bitch” are about making sure we know we’re hated for being women or that our being women is always up for scorn and mockery.

    To me, “distaff _____” hits me in a different place. To me, it’s a sorting word. It’s an indication that you’ve been dismissed from “real” life and history and why. It’s the kind of word that lets you know you’re being herded off to the side and that your opportunities are now limited because of it.

    And I think that Cooper kind of gets that that’s the implication of the word, hence his choice.

    But I have my doubts about whether he understands how it resonates for his female readers.

    It’s like pulling out a hand grenade when clapping your hands to get someone’s attention would do.

  9. And I think that Cooper kind of gets that that’s the implication of the word, hence his choice.

    But I have my doubts about whether he understands how it resonates for his female readers.

    See, I’m not sure about that. I have no particular insight here, but I think Cooper is a careful writer and may be using the term to say “see, she was a woman and people dismissed her on that account and that’s why she hit a glass ceiling” rather than to dismiss her himself. But, of course, the problem with the use of language like that is that one can’t be sure.

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