After getting “lost in the depths of fantasy,” Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Elizabeth Ziman never expected to toon in for help with promoting her brand new tune. Then classic character and life-is-but-a-dream girl Betty Boop suddenly appeared. Max Fleischer’s animation creation appears as the retro-fit star, along with Ziman’s voice, words, and music, in the black-and-white lyric video for “thirsty”, which the expressive indie-pop act known as Elizabeth and the Catapult premieres exclusively today at PopMatters.
The presentation of the lively number delivered by this “Original Sass Symbol” from our nostalgic past also serves as a first listen to the song that is officially released today. It’s one of 12 Ziman-penned selections — and the third release — from sincerely, e (Compass Records), the artist’s fifth studio album that drops on Friday. After collaborating with comedian Robert Dean on the music video for “together, alone”, the second single from the album, Ziman was caught by surprise by the classic cartoon connoisseur’s latest project, she reveals in an email interview for this article, saying, “I had no idea he was making another video.”
Her sing-along send-off and sprite, jazz-inflected vocals on “thirsty” are the driving forces for babelicious Betty, the wide-eyed, effervescent glamour gal who’s resurrected again by Dean. He worked off a recently restored version of 1934’s “Red Hot Mamma”, the Fleischer Studios production that was directed by Dave Fleischer, Max’s younger brother.
“When he was listening to ‘thirsty’, he started to browse vintage animated films with sexual innuendo, and when he landed on ‘Red Hot Mamma’, he knew it was the one,” Ziman says of Dean, a Looney Tunes fan who has released two comedy albums, was featured on AXS TV’s Gotham Comedy Live and appeared in all six episodes of the 2018 Amazon Prime docu-series Inside Jokes.
“Lucky for me, I’ve always been a fan of the great Ms. Boop,” she adds. “There’s something fierce but vulnerable about her that feels just like the narrator of the song.” Turning up the heat on a cold winter night, Betty sings and dances throughout a dream sequence before being confronted by Satan and other demons in the fiery depths of hell until she finds a way to freeze out the little devils.
Check out the combined talents of the two cool, captivating women on “thirsty” now, then read on to learn more about the song, the video and how Ziman overcame a writer’s worst nightmare during the global pandemic to complete another emotionally charged work of fine art.
Viewers will discover that the rhythms of the video seem incredibly in step with Ziman’s peppy song, an amalgamation that Dean calls “the most beautiful accident.”
“Well, he’s not giving himself enough credit when he says it was a ‘beautiful accident’ because his keen eye and sensitive ear made speed changes, along with image and lyric pairings, feel like magic,” Ziman points out. “The cartoon was already a great fit, conceptually, even before he touched it, but his tweaks helped the animation meld with the song.”
The animated short got banned in the 1930s by the British Board of Film Censors. Two months after its February 1934 release in the U.S., a two-paragraph brief on page 13 of Variety headlined “Boop Pic Nix in Eng.” stated “Red Hot Mamma” was rejected “100%” because “a film depicting the comic treatment of hell is unsuitable for public exhibition in this country.”
In the 21st century, though, Ziman finds it perfectly illustrates “thirsty”.
“Betty Boop is flirting with the devil’s fire throughout the video which, to me, is both the devil in front of her and a symbol for the devil within her,” she offers. “Honestly, I couldn’t dream up a better fit for this song which explores the many facets of desire.”
Locked down during the coronavirus outbreak could be described as Hell on Earth, too.
While Ziman endured many of the same struggles most musicians faced in 2020, she also managed to conquer an “extreme state of writer’s block” that left her in an “absolute state of shock” during quarantine. To combat that, she wrote and recorded a batch of new songs from her living room.
None of the others, though, are quite like “thirsty”, the fourth cut on an album that shrewdly counteracts the bitter with the sweet, the stressful with the blissful. “You wrecked my heart / Said you’re sorry first / You spilled my drink then looked up my skirt / Your feigned honesty means shit to me / I think I’d prefer an insult.”
“There’s a raw and playful attitude on this song, present in both the story and the performance, that really stands apart from the melancholic tone of much of the record,” Ziman states. “I’m unapologetically angry and flirtatious at the same time as if to say, ‘I know I’m making a mistake, I know this is wrong, but let’s get this over with.’ Also, this was my first time incorporating blatantly sensual lyrics — uncharted and risky territory for me — with a payoff that serves as an indulgent breather in the album sequence.”
In a “missive” recently posted for her Kickstarter backers, Ziman went on to explain, “Going inward during quarantine meant not only grappling with the world outside of my four walls but getting lost in the depths of fantasy and intimacy in my mind. What does a break-up song look like during a pandemic? ‘thirsty’ sure felt like a clearinghouse for my heightened emotions and it was cathartic to let my bitterness take center stage. Yet, there’s still a lightness, humor in the song, as I clearly acknowledge the futility of complaining.”
While playing piano, guitars, Fender Rhodes, mellotron, and more on the album she self-produced and engineered, Ziman relied on other instrumental contributors such as Catapult connections Adam Minkoff (bass, drums, electric guitar, background vocals), Peter Lalish (electric guitar) and (now with Lucius) Dan Molad (drums, bass), along with Alex Sherba (slide guitar) and Katie Jacoby (violin, viola).
It was nice to be reintroduced to the artist again after first hearing about Elizabeth and the Catapult in 2009. That July, the former classical pianist and Berklee College of Music student brought Lalish, Molad and touring bassist Emeen Zarookian from her group of “musical conspirators” to Denver as Greg Laswell’s opening act for a sold-out show in the cozy Walnut Room. Earlier at Berklee, where she earned a scholarship to study classical composition, her band members at gigs in Boston included Esperanza Spalding, who went on to become a renowned bassist and admired solo artist.