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    The Spangle Maker

    Virginia thinks Sarah Palin is working a cowgirl-glamour persona. (My use of working doesn’t mean it’s necessarily insincere, only that she’s consciously capitalizing on it for effect.) Years ago, she (Virginia, that is) also wrote an article in Reason about our obsession with politicians’ looks:

    Righteously upholding the idea that looks don’t matter, these watchdogs all studiously ignored the embarrassing truth: Not only do human beings make judgments about how other people look, we enjoy doing so. We’re not going to stop just because ombudsmen of various sorts tell us it’s bad manners. And in an age where we see more and more good-looking people, either directly or through the media, we’re getting more and more judgmental. When it comes to looks, double standards – of whatever variety – are disappearing.

    Pretending we don’t care how people look doesn’t make us stop caring. It simply encourages us to equate good looks with other qualifications. Instead of treating beauty as one value among many, we come to treat it as the greatest value of all. It may not seem fair to treat looks as important. But it’s far more fair than treating appearance as something more.

    Of course, Sarah Palin’s look is being trashed by her detractors on the left and swooned over by her new fans on the right, but those reactions hardly say anything about either end of the political spectrum. Remember the years of torturous obsession with Hillary Clinton’s hair and clothing styles? The sort of Americanized Anna Lindh look she eventually settled on actually suits her very well, I thought; and (who knows?) maybe that actually had something to do with her having found her voice and identity as a public figure.

    Margaret Thatcher was a conservative woman who went for the old-guard look: hats and pearls and silk and heels. The high-maquillage thing worked for her, both because it flattered her physical entity (ramrod-straight carriage and stern expression) and because it enhanced the image she wanted to project (upholding standards in the face of destabilization). Palin very wisely didn’t try to go for the updated American version of that look, because she doesn’t represent Thatcher’s imperious, unbending stability.

    I think Palin’s sexy librarian look works for her very well, in that she inhabits it convincingly; it seems to be an extension of her real self. The American sporty style of dressing up allows her to project authority and respect for the occasion but also look ready for physical action. She seems feminine without seeming girlie.
    How much truth there is to her image is hard to judge at this point, but it’s working very well for the people the McCain campaign was trying to court, and it will be interesting to see whether the Obama campaign draws useful lessons from it.

    Added later: As my final thought before the weekend, here’s a weirdly apposite Olivia Newton-John video. For one thing, this has to be the best song about obsessive lust ever built around an election metaphor. For another, in 1982 or so, she was the public figure who embodied athletic, can-do, feminine glamour.

    5 Responses to “The Spangle Maker”

    1. Rob says:

      I hadn’t exactly forgotten about this song, but I certainly had packed it away since I last played the album it kicked off, back when it was mourning in America, and I have to say that it has aged well. And that’s because I think it has less in common with Sarahcuda (or Heart for that matter) than it does with the singer who called ONJ her third-best friend, and who lived just long enough to hear it. Its charm and kick lies in not the overoxygenated vibe ONJ was scoring with in those days on the likes of P, MAMOM and HA, but rather in the steady, low-medium flame she learned from her skinny, doomed friend, who in her less skinny, less doomed days always knew that slow/medium and steady won the race most of the time. I daresay (based on hearsay, of course), though, that election was at best the third (everything in threes again) metaphor intended, unless of course election itself was a metaphor, and then of course there’s the race metaphor, and then of course there’s that last note . . . .

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Was Olivia friends with Karen? I hadn’t known that. (I mean, skinny and doomed and died when Physical was out…that has to be Karen Carpenter?) “Landslide” is possibly my favorite Olivia song, and I really can’t believe it wasn’t a bigger hit. Given the album it’s on, I’m kind of surprised that the metaphor wasn’t extended in some ecological direction…I mean, they were talking about the Greenhouse Effect back then, right?

    3. Rob says:

      First, on “Landslide”: I agree, Sean, it’s a hidden gem of Olivia’s canon, though admittedly a bit because it’s relatively obscure. That said, “Landslide,” like the rest of her best — “Magic,” “The Rumour” (another good one for this election) and a few others — and as befits a good Libra, rides the center line, in Olivia’s case the one between the total fluff and the total f*ck-me vibes. When she’s there she finds her most alluring and musical voice. An early happy 60th, Livvy (9/26).

      Second, Yes, Karen and Olivia were very close. In fact their friendship was one of the few safe harbors for Karen during those last five difficult years of her life (1978-1983). Alas, it was also the time of Olivia’s post-“Grease” bounce and the Carpenters’ sharp decline, and Karen, who cared deeply about having hit records, decided she needed to look and sound more like her good friend. No offense to the marvelous Olivia, but that shows just addled Karen’s brain was at the time, as on her best day she could sing circles around Olivia. And so she made a well-intentioned but misconceived solo album, in which the slightly-tarted- and way-too-modulated-up Karen offered such trifles as “Remember When Loving Took All Night” (that one co-written by ONJ’s producer John Farrar). It’s a testament to Karen’s talent that even with mediocre material keyed way too high, she still made an album that wasn’t half-bad. But the record company apparently thought it wasn’t half-good, shelved it (it was eventually released in 1996) and, well, we know the rest. For a rare up moment in Karen’s life then, check out her cameo on Olivia’s 1980 “Hollywood Nights” TV special. She’s part of the rollicking “Heartache Tonight” finale, a strange brew that also includes Tina Turner, Cliff Richard, Toni Tennille, Peaches (sans Herb), Elton John and Andy Gibb. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4AmSa4xM6U.

    4. Sean Kinsell says:

      “Tied Up”–I always loved “Tied Up,” and it went nowhere, too.

      Interesting what you say about the center line. When I listened to “A Little More Love” in my twenties for the first time in well over a decade, the jerky back-and-forth between those polarities was really obvious. She really did learn a lot between Totally Hot and Physical.

      And completely fascinating about Karen Carpenter. I had no idea. Of course, it’s far from unheard-of for very talented people to be insecure about themselves, and at that moment it really must have seemed that Olivia-fying herself was the only way to go in the evolving market. Karen was an oddly recurring figure for kids my age, because she died when we were in fifth grade, and every year after that, when the health teacher talked about anorexia, she was the example. We were old enough to have heard the Carpenters’ music and seen them on television throughout childhood, so the idea that she was dead really made an impression.

    5. Rob says:

      Sure, many artists are insecure; you could argue that most artistic ability flows from insecurity. And for a proud singer like Karen, who for five years basically just had to sneeze to land in the Top 10, the sudden relegation to the lower rungs of the Top 40 had to sting. That’s why the solo album was such a good idea, and certainly, in 1979-80, a little more Liv never hurt anybody.

      But in Karen’s case it wasn’t really necessary. Singers like her are timeless and trendproof. All she and the producer, Phil Ramone, had to do was find 11 or 12 great songs, set them in her vocal breadbasket (low) and watch their back accounts fatten. Then again it wasn’t exactly a golden age for songwriting, so maybe they got the best of what was out there. And the album they made, as per the previous comment, was still good enough to come out and probably would have been a hit anyway; this was 1980, after all, a year that anything went on the charts.

      Interesting that fifth grade was a touchstone year for you with Karen even if it was the year she died, because fifth grade was the year she came alive to me. I never cared much for “Close to You,” which hit the summer before, but with “We’ve Only Just Begun,” it was love at second sound.

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