thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Olivia Newton John, Carly Rae Jepsen, and the Slapstickiness of Female Desire

In music videos on July 23, 2012 at 9:43 am

Guest Contributor Paul Bindel

He won’t be calling.

Some may click through blogs or Songza for the musical scoop of the hour; others trick to summer festivals to hear the best new band. This summer, my primary source of new music happens to be junior-high girls—vanloads of them, giggles and whispers, as I shuttle them on outdoor National Park tours. iPhone after iPhone comes trickling from four rows of backseats, mixed with exultant, usually off-key sopranos. We dance, we crank it, we sing, mixing the right soundtrack for sights of bears and bison and rock formations.

I haven’t decided if I’m in the trenches of new music (particularly when it comes to country tunes) or caught in the Adele-an or Taylor Swift-ean eddies from last year. But I’m not sure trendiness is more important than pleasure, and these girls enjoy their music. Sure, “I Gotta Feeling” may play five times before 2:00 p.m., but once the snare hits, the irony drifts out the van window: we’re all in 7th grade again, and it’s summer.

This week, I was fascinated to hear how my passengers relate to Carly Rae Jepsen’s ubiquitous single “Call Me Maybe.”  Few audiences are better than teenage girls for a song about female desire, vulnerable angst dripping even from the title. The song has mostly come up as our vans imitate the Harvard Baseball team’s van dance cover. (Yes, we posted our version on Youtube. Yes, “the boys’ van totally copied us.”)

I wasn’t exactly curious about the song until a girl mentioned it over dinner: “Did you see the ending of her music video? It is so crazy.” At the prospect of more than fist pumps, I asked for more details. “Well, this girl is in love with a guy, and he’s so cute. But when she gives him her number, he’s actually gay and wants to date her band member. Can you believe that?”

I could and couldn’t, but was struck that the plot so resembled Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” another viral video with a gay twist. The songs’ similarities made me wonder about female desire. With more than 30 years between the two videos, why do women whose songs directly express desire become exaggerated objects of desire in their videos? And why do the video’s desirable men end up desiring other men?

In the video for “Call Me Maybe,” Jepsen peeps on her hyper-masculine neighbor mowing the lawn and fixing a car. Her best attempts at a sexy car wash do little to capture his attention, at least until she slips on soap off the car onto the ground. After a brief romantic dream sequence, she wakes her up and watches her garage band perform. But all manner of  googly eyes, synth-strings, and admissions of affection are powerless: as she jots down her number for him, he offers his number to her male bandmate. I understand that the gay-twist in the video is funny, but it’s a joke we keep telling.

“That ending” says Jepsen’s manager, Scooter Braun, “is so smart and funny,” and he’s right, but it’s hardly original. In “Physical,” Olivia Newton-John craves and croons in spandex, framed beside and between the flexed appendages of faceless weightlifters, in Reagan-era excess tghat that makes Jepsen’s video look tame. The song’s kinky weightlifting double entrendre is as slight as the men’s speedos.  As Newton-John pleas “Let me hear your body talk,” the chiseled men transmogrify into flabby duds who can’t keep up with her in the aerobics room, the stationary bike, or the massage table. What’s a sex-starved girl to do except take a shower in frustration?  Once she’s all wet—not unlike the sudsy Jepsen–the men’s muscles bounce back. But when the hunks reappear, it’s only to carry each other away, in a sexy outro that even MTV thought scandalous enough to occasionally edit out. Newton-John’s consolation is a large, goofily grinning man in highwaters.

While their videos end by undercutting female desire, both song’s lyrics represent a female narrator whose inner monologues amplify it. Jepsen’s lyrics invert John Berger’s formulation of the gaze (“Men act and women appear”) with her repeated insistence that she is “looking”  and that he appeared “in [her] way.” Elusiveness is, of course, the root of desire, in that we can only want what we do not have: “Your stare was holdin’, / Ripped jeans, skin was showin’, / Hot night, wind was blowin’/ Where you think you’re going baby?” Jepsen’s seductive narration diverts to a question—“Where you think you’re going baby?”—that strives to keep her object of desire within view. Newton-John’s lyrics reflect a more practiced strategy at captivating another’s attention, “I’m saying all the things I know you’ll like / Making good conversation / I gotta handle you just right / you know what I mean.” But she, too, is at the unrequited side of desire “It’s getting hard to hold this back [. . .] You gotta know that you’re bringing out the animal in me.” Both song’s choruses move away from reflective monologues to straightforward propositions, from Newton-John’s “Let me hear your body talk / your body talk” to Jepsen’s somewhat more tentative “So here’s my number / so call me, maybe.”

Even as I write “tentative” to describe Jepsen’s chorus, I find myself thinking “girlish,” which seems part of the problem. What is this discursive nook that women can desire from? Certainly, Newton-John’s refrain is anything but tentative as it becomes becomes “Let’s get animal.” The video’s tendency toward slapstick humor, its gay-twist, and the exercise motif are, in this light, ways of upstaging the eroticism of the lyrics, taming them. In the 80’s, it was ok for Olivia Newton-John’s song to eroticize men and to delineate a route of seduction, so long as she ultimately stripped down for a shower in her video (in fact, the video won the first Music Video Grammy). Though Newton-John’s desire echoes down a homoerotic hall of mirrors, she’s still the spandexed and head-banded eye candy the majority of male viewers will remember.

The gay-twist in “Call Me Maybe” is not so reciprocal as that of the gay couples in “Physical,” with the male bandmate registering the solicitation with a mixture of suppressed laughter and shock, and here, I think, female desire and queer desire briefly register together as misguided inversions of male desire, best played for laughs. The Harvard baseball team’s performance of “Call Me Maybe” is not as funny for its slight homoeroticism as for its juxtaposition of cool, controlled effort.  Those stoic faces and coordinated air punches perform something very different than Jepsen’s car wash scene, and they still manage to look sexy.

Back on my tour, a representative of the boys’ van critiqued the girls’ for fixating on the Harvard boys: “The only reason the girls watch that video,” he said, rolling his eyes, “is because they think the guys are hot. Oh, look at his body! Ooh! Ooh! I like that one!” This boy’s dismissal of his classmate’s crushes doesn’t seem too different from the dismissive logic of Jepsen’s and Newton-John’s videos. The gay characters deliver a conservative moral—don’t hanker too hard, ladies—that undercuts the message in the lyrics. Suffice it to say, I know at least one van that will be cranking Jepsen’s song tomorrow and, with visions of Harvard boys, won’t be bothered by this tension.

Paul Bindel teaches writing in Flagstaff, AZ. He collects postcards, reads books, and brews at least one Belgian beer a year.

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