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Everywoman's Wild Ride

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Ann Magnuson

The Luv Show

(Geffen)

By Monica Kendrick

It's easy to forget that there was once a time when little girls didn't dream of becoming stars, when women weren't allowed onstage at all and female parts were played by men--centuries before Andy Warhol and John Waters. It wasn't until the turn of this century that significant numbers of women dared venture onto the public stage; they were considered little better than prostitutes for plying their craft. Moving pictures and the ascent of Hollywood changed all that, at least theoretically, and within a few quick decades the middle class went from scorning the brazen hussies of stage and screen to worshiping them as icons of ideal womanhood.

But as we've all surely learned by now, stereotypes and double standards are as nuke-proof as the proverbial cockroach. Hollywood has cheerfully documented its own ambivalence in scores of Little-Girl-Lost-in-Tinseltown melodramas, from All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard to Valley of the Dolls and beyond.

The Luv Show, the first solo album from Ann Magnuson, the singer-actor-writer-performance artist who was once half of the madly eclectic Shimmy-Disc band Bongwater, is a concept album based on this modern archetype. (Fans of Bongwater might have seen it coming, since Magnuson and Kramer were masters of the concept song--a short anecdote or spurt of stand-up comedy over music designed specifically to augment the content.) In Magnuson's telling, the saga of the ingenue in Hollywood is much less Vincente Minnelli than Russ Meyer; she quotes directly from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in the liner notes-cum-program.

Magnuson has said in interviews that a true representation of female sexuality is a rarity, and this is as true in the arts as it is in pornography. The ingenue-in-Hollywood story, like most fables, has usually been written by men, who mostly have presented rather unimaginative male fantasies of the inner life of women. The title character usually moves from sweet virgin to jaded whore exclusively (in the sad version, she dies that way; in the happy version she makes a second transition, to contented wife). But of course the female consciousness can contain all those personae at all times and switch between them from moment to moment.

In rock and roll, a few female artists have effectively conveyed lust and longing as women experience them--Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, Polly Harvey--but most seem to lean on internalized reflections of male fantasy or watered-down "sensitive" meditations on "love." Magnuson clearly belongs to the first school (and has since well before Bongwater's The Power of Pussy, from 1991). On The Luv Show, she makes well-lubricated shifts through a variety of personae all contained within a flirtatious everywoman who in one instance manages to imitate Carmen Miranda and Ethel Merman in the same Faustian romp: "Sex With the Devil," a metaphor for the LA experience.

Now, there is an in-joke overkill common to works that draw so heavily from pop culture; retro is always at least one step removed from the immediate, and Hollywood retro at least two. But for any intelligent woman, irony is a necessary bit of sexual armor, and in the belly of the Hollywood beast, what else could provide the raw material for that irony? (Reality? Define your terms, please!) "Sex With the Devil," a twitchy, clipped, Latin-cocktail-jazz pastiche, is pleasant enough up until the inevitable bloodletting, but Magnuson's demon lover (played by Jim "Foetus" Thirlwell) tortures by tickling, and her giggling indicates that a resourceful woman can survive a shattered innocence intact as long as she keeps her wits--and her wit--about her.

Running through The Luv Show is a thread of desire to destroy that very intelligence. In LA there's an array of devices available to help shut off the critical faculties: drugs, sex, the high of glamour. "It's a great feeling, this brain-dead feeling....That great feeling / Kills all your feelings," Magnuson sings on "It's a Great Feeling." That is the real suicide; all the more lurid self-destructive behaviors are manifestations of the same wish to annihilate the thinking, feeling self--a form of suicide as easily mastered by the pill-popping housewife as by the showgirl.

In the traditional version of this tale, the loss of awareness is seen as a given--if our ingenue is ever credited with having it in the first place--and there are good ways of losing it (motherhood) and bad ways (sex). Hence the joy of this version: here are the sides we rarely see, the many and sometimes conflicting points of view of a woman who lives the wild ride yet remains an astute observer of herself and her world, a creator who is at once the storyteller and the story. Magnuson's everywoman is never a puppet even when she's being manipulated, because she's so frighteningly, hilariously conscious.

As with any good musical, the band takes us there: from hell-bent-on-oblivion fuck rock ("Miss Pussy Pants") to sad, spare songs of the flawed self that contemplates mirrors and windows with equal obsessiveness ("Dead Moth," "Live, You Vixen"); there's the broken lounge-piano tinkle under "Swinger (Reprise)," in which Magnuson's torch-singer falls apart right onstage at the "Pigeon-Toed-Orange-Peel-a-Go-Go," rough-voiced, wasted, cursing and crying. You can almost see the slight stagger on the too-high heels, the runs in her hose, the clouds in her eyes.

"I Remember You" leaves us on a hopeful note--the theremin enters right on cue even as everything else goes down in flames: "I laid out all my secrets for you like hundreds of casualties of some airline crash waiting for identification in a foreign gymnasium....I could never forget that jeweled moment...that eternal orgasmic high that seemed to last forever as the sun exploded over the Pacific and that redwood work of art we called a home burst into flames and how lucky we were to be feeling this feeling."

The irony flows fast and thick, but it's the expressiveness of Magnuson's voice, the theatrical attention to musical detail, and the persistence of Magnuson's intelligent humor that convince us that the pain and joy and desire are all quite real--you don't even have to know Magnuson really is a small-town girl, from the insular, chemically poisoned, and economically depressed Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. The attraction of young artists from the sticks to larger, faster worlds is obvious and Magnuson's frantic career has at times seemed like overcompensation. Surely her self-assuredness must sometimes feel like a strange mask to her. On The Luv Show she presents that mask, then lets us see--with a wink--what's underneath.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ann Magnuson photo by Rocky Schenk/ album cover.

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