Monday, 15 March 2010

Rockabilly, Sexuality, Imperialism

Wanda Jackson was one of my favourite musical discoveries in 2009. She’s spent most of her career as a country singer, but the album I found, Wanda Jackson: Queen of Rockabilly, (only Y200 at BookOff Kichijoji) is full of early rock’n’roll of a kind so powerful it makes Elvis seem tame.

When you remember that Jackson was only 20 or even younger when she recorded most of these songs their fierceness and independence seems all the more extraordinary.

Jackson’s most striking song - too raunchy to get national play time in the US - is “Fujiyama Mama”, as wild an artistic celebration of female assertiveness and sexuality as you’re likely to hear. (It was Annisteen Allen who in 1955 first recorded the song, but Jackson’s version is much more explicitly sexual and direct and, presumably, given its white singer and intended white audience in segregation-era America, would have been all the more unsettling).

Amidst all the ultra-conservative reaction of the United States of the 1950s, this song’s outrageousness is like something from a past we never had:

Cause I'm a Fujiyama Mama and I'm just about to blow my top!
And when I start erupting there ain’t nobody gonna make me stop!

That initial celebratory shock has to give way, though, to a sense of horror as Jackson’s metaphor becomes clear:

I've been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too!
The things I did to them baby, I can do to you!

But temptations to put this down to contradictory consciousness or the attitudes of a different era should be avoided. Best to listen to the music and take this lurid mixture of sexual frankness and revelling in violence and destruction quite literally.

For an imperialist power at the height of its reach and confidence there’s an obvious libidinal investment in its power and potential for destructiveness. What we forget - in the era of the crisis of US imperialism - is how explicit this all could once have been. Jackson’s forthright assertiveness meant she could never fit the images and sounds of appropriate feminity for the home market, but isn’t her performance here just amplifying all that sexualisation of violence and power which is so much a part of US imperial fantasy: those paintings of women on WWII warplanes, the naming of missiles and bombs, the kitsch salacious wholesomeness of shows to entertain the troops? In this context, comparing wiping out hundreds of thousands of lives to having an orgasm makes perfect sense.

The tension here is that Wanda Jackson was singing from a marginal, oppressed location within that social relation: it would have been, from her position as a woman in a reactionary and misogynist society, almost impossible to live the kind of sexual and personal autonomy her music espouses. Jackson’s rockabilly scandalises and unsettles the very imperialist ideology it advocates.

Japanese listeners were alive to those tensions, and “Fujiyama Mama” was a big hit there in 1958 (Tamaki Sawa even released a Japanese-language version). Jackson and others claim, with a fair bit of between-the-lines racist wink-nudgery about those naïve Asians, that the song was a hit because its fans couldn’t have understood it. Again, surely it’s best to take things literally: the Japanese understood this song all too well, and understood the world order being arranged around them. As John Dower shows in his important history Embracing Defeat, there was a complex process of both sexualisation and de-humanisation at work in US representations of the Japanese through the first part of the US occupation.

Japanese listeners may well have been - to use a strangely appropriate metaphor for the era of 45s - turning the tables on their occupier. In embracing so fervently a song which expressed the attitudes of their conquerors too honestly to make it a hit at ‘home’, their appreciation for the Queen of Rockabilly may have, for the briefest of moments, exposed the ruling ideology all too clearly.

Either way, it’s a deeply unnerving song from a powerfully talented performer.

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