[1 December 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It’s been nearly a decade since the death of Dusty Springfield, and while she in no way faded from collective memory during that short time, it does seem that she has recently been rediscovered in current popular culture. There has been a renewed interest in her life and work, and it has produced a surge of new material, including last year’s Live at the BBC DVD and Complete BBC Sessions CD, Sharon Davis’s The Life and Death of Dusty Springfield, It’s Hard Being Queen a collection of 61 poems about Dusty by Jeanette Lynes, and not one, but two, upcoming biopic projects (reportedly starring Nicole Kidman and Kristin Chenoweth, respectively).
Among the biographies and tributes comes a book that is at once both and neither. Dusty! Queen of the Postmods is a study of the lasting cultural impact of the singer and woman who not only invented an entire musical genre, but entirely invented herself as well. Author Annie J. Randall begins there, with the transformation of catholic schoolgirl Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien into international musical innovator and fashion icon Dusty Springfield.
Randall is an Associate Professor of Musicology, Bucknell University, but her first exposure to Dusty Springfield was through the singer’s image, that of the impossible blonde beehive wigs and artfully overdrawn eyes, in a picture that ran with an obituary. It’s fitting, then, that this book follows its introduction with an examination of the postmodern search for identity through image in a chapter entitled “Dusty’s Hair”. Dusty’s over-the-top glamorous look can’t be overestimated in the part it played on her popularity in the early to mid-‘60s. Girls in particular accepted her, because she was proof that anyone could transform herself into a stylish, sophisticated woman (if armed with enough eyeliner and hairspray, of course!). But, as Randall thoroughly explores, Dusty’s physical transfiguration and visual impact were only the tip of her transformation.
By the end of 1964, Dusty Springfield had already garnered pop hits and praise on both sides of the Atlantic with “I Only Want to be With You” and “Wishin’ and Hopin’”. It was at this time she met and began collaborating with American gospel singer Madeline Bell. The two formed a friendship and musical exchange that saw soul inflections entering Dusty’s work in a unique way as she and Bell, along with backing singers Doris Troy and Leslie Duncan, developed a distinct blend of Deep South gospel and European pop. It’s in this chapter where Randall’s writing really excels. Not only does she place Dusty Springfield alongside her peers with in-depth analysis of performances and interviews with associates and acolytes, not only does she compare and contrast Dusty’s music with both the Beatles/British Invasion and the Motown hits of the era, not only does she chart and dissect the elements of Dusty’s emerging “Transatlantic Soul” sound, but she does so with a superior sense of storytelling. Details of the relationship between Dusty and Bell, and between the musical traditions from which their collaboration sprung, and the far-reaching results of their interaction, are presented in a compellingly readable manner.
This engaging style continues as Randall relates the cultural consequences of Dusty Springfield’s musical choices, from helping to bring soul music to Britain with the Ready, Steady, Go! television special, Sounds of Motown, to definitively establishing her own distinctive style with the 1966 hit “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” and recording Dusty in Memphis, which although Rolling Stone called it one of the best 100 albums, was not initially well received. Randall also delves into what she calls the “1960s Pop Aria”, the emotionally overwrought combination of American soul and European melodrama. This isn’t so much about the melding of the sounds of those two styles as it is about expressing the emotion inherent in them, and doing so in a very theatrical way. A song like “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” is a prime example of, as Randall explains, the commodification of emotions and the compression of operatic devices that enjoyed prevalence in mid-‘60s songwriting. Randall goes on to highlight songs that best demonstrate how the different components of an aria are used in pop form, and later, shows how the various, instantly recognizable, vocal and physical gestures of melodrama—often labeled “camp”—are present in Dusty Springfield’s performances. It’s fascinating stuff.
Equally fascinating is how Dusty’s mid-‘60s persona survived beyond the pinnacle of her fame and the decline of the “pop aria”. Randall devotes the last chapter to the lasting impact of Dusty Springfield on legions of fans and performers. Across Randall’s interviews, the topics of self-discovery, virtuosity identity and legacy intertwine in relationship to Dusty. Fans have taken Dusty’s reinvention of herself as inspiration for discovery of their own individualities. Randall tells the individual tales of several meticulously devoted fans. She discusses Dusty’s unparalleled vocal and emotional command, and describes the media’s part in the perception of Dusty—both her musicality and sexuality. She examines the ways in which Dusty was camp, and how that lends itself to drag performances and tributes, and how Dusty’s legacy continues with modern British female singers like Adele and Amy Winehouse.
Since her death, Dusty Springfield’s legend has only grown. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of fame and is the subject of countless documentaries, books, plays and websites. Dusty—her voice, her image (and sometimes her hair)—was larger than life and Randall captures this fact nearly flawlessly in Dusty! Queen of the Postmods, as she posits that it is precisely why Dusty Springfield has had such an indelible impact on our collective cultural consciousness.