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Cosmetic surgery as clothing

I'm always a little wary about getting into gender issues because I don't want to lapse, as may be the male tendency, into a paternalistic, patronizing attitude about them: My friend Carolyn has fond grad school memories of being lectured to about what it means to be a woman by some male student who had read a little Cixous and Irigaray ("Don't you see, Carolyn? All women wear the mask"); I definitely don't want to be that guy. I'm not entirely sure which is worse, blundering through a discussion of such issues in ways that reveal my tunnel vision or ignoring them altogether -- but then again ignorance never stopped me from proclaiming opinions on other subjects, so why should it stop me here?

In yesterday's WSJ was a review of Beauty Junkies, a book about the cosmetic surgery industry and women who are "addicted" to having work done. Reviewer Alexandra Wolfe (who judging by her status as a WSJ critic and by her forthcoming book about "the culture of entitlement" is probably fairly conservative) sums the situation up this way:

These days, dots on the derriere are just one clue among many -- including the shiny sheen on stretched cheeks, the ever-alert eyes and the perky, unbouncing breasts -- that someone has "had a little work done." Beauty Junkies captures the sad fate that has befallen the feminine ideal: Since women can achieve an approximation of attractiveness through one procedure or another, they all end up looking vaguely like the same person: an aging porn star. In the end, the book leaves the reader not only aware of the emptiness of cosmetic surgery's results but also conscious of the vacuity of our current concept of beauty itself.

Though I would toss out the reference to the feminine ideal, that seems an apt description of what is so creepy about cosmetic surgery: it permits women to eschew their natural looks in favor of a technologically produced fashionable alternative. The standardizing technology of the surgeries and injections and so on allow the beauty of any person to be judged by the same set of criteria, rather than each person evoking her own criteria to explain her unique beauty. And it makes of this standardized "beauty" a proxy for money and class -- those with the income and the access to the right surgeons can achieve the robotic look Wolfe describes and will thus be held to be beautiful by society, though they are clearly hideous to any person marvelling at their plasticity close up. Aesthetic beauty has no objective reference point (there's no universal "feminine ideal"); it always derives from the imperatives of signifying class. Cosmetic surgery forwards that aspect of the ideology encoded in beauty; it makes it a choice but presents that choice as a natural fact (much like class is supposed to be, blue blood is proof of a natural and God-intended superiority). Cosmetic surgery extends fashion's domain from their clothes to their very bodies, which in turn allows the outward expression of their natural self to be altogether eradicated. Carolyn's grad-school friend might say they are completely and perpetually safely behind "the mask."

My defensive preface to this post comes in here, because I don't want to sound as though the women who get plastic surgery are either dupes, victims or shallow collaborators with an oppressive male order. As Pandagon blogger Amanda Marcotte is always pointing out, "you can criticize the power inequities that the garment is evidence of without attacking women who are better off wearing it than not, for whatever reason. And same thing with make-up or high heels or shaving or whatever. That women feel they have to act more or 'do' femininity to achieve perfectly reasonable goals, like be attractive or to get a job or whatever is not a sign that those women are somehow awful. It’s a sign that they are in a socially inferior position and have to put up with more shit to get half as much."

But this isn't so much about gender, I guess, as it is about technology standardizing behavior and expectations as it presents more "choices." Women have more choices and options than ever in how to conform to an oppressive standard of beauty; isn't that great? What freedom. The choices are actually coercive in practice; they destablilize one's sense of self and intensify feelings of insecurity, they intentionally create the impression of inadequacy. When consumer choice colonizes a realm of everyday life, it absorbs it into the play of the cycle of fashion and the zero-sum rigor of manufacturing class distinctions, the requirement of consuming conspicuously. That's why Marcotte's prediction that the pressures of self-presentation men and women will be subject to will be distributed more equally seems both plausible and extremely depressing. "Grooming standards are going to go in this direction, I suspect. As women gain power, we’re going to grow weary of tap dancing for men, but on the other hand, men are going to start tap dancing for us. I’ve got no problem with this; in the abstract sense, a lot of things marked feminine are joyful in themselves, but only problematic because they’ve got the baggage of inferiority attached to them. Ornamental dress and grooming isn’t really a problem, unless you have some sort of grudge against color and beauty." I guess I do have a grudge against color and beauty, because in consumer society those concepts aren't for themselves but are tools of producing, displaying and reinforcing inequality -- now they reinforce gender inequality, but should they shift in the way Marcotte anticipates, then they will express and uphold class inequality. The "baggage of inferiority" is always attached to beauty once it becomes subject to fashion -- that is, once it becomes an on-demand product; ultimately that's the whole point of "feeling beautiful" as opposed to simply being beautiful: to make yourself feel superior and others inferior. And its byproduct, that we all feel insecure over just where we rank in the beauty hierarchy, just makes us that much more cooperative with the existing social order.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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