“And I’ve left him a note, in the mornin’ he’ll find it / It’s my last request and he can’t refuse me…” Dolly sings in the absolutely unhinged “Blackie, Kentucky” – the fifth song on her fourteenth solo studio album Love Is Like a Butterfly.
We might make jokes about Phoebe Bridgers or Lucy Darcus at the epicenter of “sad girl indie” but truly nothing compares to the oceans of pain Dolly taps into. Yes, as Darcus points out, there is a problem with the classification, commodification, and perpetual expectation of women’s pain, but, as she also points out, that pain can be meaningful. In Dolly’s stories of suicide, mental institution, teenage pregnancies, and the desperate love for men who treat us wrong, she gives women, particularly poor white Southern women, a voice.
Part of what gives her the leeway to write these songs is her performance of femininity. In her dangerously low-cut skin-tight dresses, perilously long pink nails, and mile-high hair, Dolly revels in the supposed contradictions of her ostentatious presentation and her serious talent. This performative hyper-femininity and celebration of feminine glamor gives her the tools to create art that is simultaneously revolutionary and unremarkable. Because she heightens everything, she can heighten the stakes in her songwriting too to write what are really and truly some horribly sad songs, exploring a level of misery and hysteria well past the limits of Taylor Swift or Patsy Cline. Because of her exaggerated performance of this white Southern womanhood Dolly doesn’t have to sidestep the problems women face or mask them with humor.
Like Dolly, Courtney Love gives the performance of womanhood that is simultaneously unnatural and true, both centering themselves on their pale skin, blonde hair, and face full of makeup, But while Love’s performance of femininity is objectively easier to attain than Dolly’s – with lipstick smeared and torn $20 slips – it doesn’t look easy. It looks like a self-destructive trick.
Howling out horrible abrasive tales of violet skies and pieces of a girl in a box by the bed, Love’s self-destructive eroticism, as Sasha Geffen points out in their review of Hole’s sophomore album Live Through This, speaks to “the atomization of the female form that takes place in the eye of the misogynist. To the ogler, a woman is never whole. She’s shards: lips, hair, tits, ass, whatever can be grabbed without consequence, whatever can be bought and sold. Love would know, having stripped for a living before the band broke big, having made a career of, among other things, being looked at.”
Love understands that the ugliness we find inside of ourselves is not uniquely “feminine,” but she acknowledges, as Sasha Geffen also points out, that female pain is marked, that it is compartmentalized and dismissed because it is felt by women, not people. Dolly acknowledges this too. And in a society that refuses you power just to dismiss your pain, giving a voice to this is life-affirming. But Dolly, with her bright soprano voice and quaint “Dolly-isms”, is easy to write off as harmless even with a talent to outshine each and every man in her vicinity.
Porter Wagoner hired Dolly in 1967 for his weekly TV program, The Porter Wagoner Show after pretty Miss Norma Jean was fired from his show after marrying Jody Taylor. Though by this point Dolly had already married one Carl Dean in a private ceremony in Georgia in the year prior. Parton’s record label asked her to wait a year before getting married for the sake of her career, but she knew that if she stayed single she would have her freedom but would be vulnerable to predatory men and potentially even be labeled a trollop. Her marriage to Dean allowed her to explore her musical sensuality while marking her commitment to married life and traditional gender roles, and her husband’s refusal to engage in the public sphere also helped legitimize her ambition. Typically, marriage signaled a loss exemplified in the Carter Family’s “Single Girl, Married Girl,” Peggy Seeger’s “When I Was Single” and in Norma Jean’s own departure. But because of Dean’s presumed support and the seemingly happy marriage, Dolly’s career gained the male validation she needed to become a star.
Courtney did not side-step the traps that Dolly wrangled to the ground. Maybe things would have been better for Courtney if she had married a man who also existed outside the limelight. Instead, she wanted the biggest rising star on the planet – and she got him. And for it, she was labeled a gold digger and an opportunist. Never mind that she was a well-established and immensely talented musician in her own right, or that Kurt Cobain had willingly chosen her as a partner too. She had not the tact, or forethought, or desire to circumvent the rules imposed on her. She was not interested in any sort of saccharine sweetness or appeasing fragile male egos even if it made her life easier.
And yet for all her suffering, I don’t know if she would have gotten mainstream success if it weren’t for her penchant for peroxide. Not because she would have been any less talented, but because men with power wouldn’t have let her. I don’t know if Dolly would have either. Because I suspect it was that blonde ambition that allowed these women to explore the various possibilities of sexual existence, and control their construction as sexual objects even as they existed within the parameters of patriarchal structures. Blondeness maps onto itself a certain feminine youth and innocence (a dumb blonde requires innocence) and unspoken whiteness. Norma Jean Baker and Jennifer Aniston can become blonde, but Rihanna can’t. Not really. Regardless of how stunning she or Beyoncé or any other person of color may look sporting their honeyed locks, the politics of blondeness can’t follow. And it’s not because of a requirement of seamlessness either. Blondie’s brunette Debbie Harry has left her roots showing for the vast majority of her career, and I am always left with the haunting suspicion that Phoebe Bridger’s natural hair color might look a little different from her usual stark blonde. But we accept them as blonde because, with their youth, femininity, and whiteness, they are.
Dolly’s whiteness allows for an inherent authenticity that people of color, particularly Black men and women, are denied. Because I think in our hearts we all know that Linda Martell or the Pointer Sisters could not have shown up looking like Dolly on the Grande Ole Opry. A “town tramp” who wasn’t white, blonde and thin might have seemed too real – the artificiality of it too suspect. But because Dolly was all these things, she could simply be dismissed as tacky and tasteless. And as much as Courtney Love is rejecting white femininity and all the hatred and double standards she faced while writing songs about sex, abuse, and suicide, she still found it necessary to enact certain markers of it. She smeared lipstick across her mouth, shaved her legs, and wore dresses, she kept thin – and she dyed her brown hair blonde. Tapping into the cultural currency of blondeness, she was setting herself up for just enough “purity” to keep her head above water. Despite it all, she had discovered the unsettling truth that there are rules that need to be followed in order to be heard.
By Fiona O’Reilly (she/her), who also runs “across the 8th dimension” (Wednesdays, 12:00 -2:00 pm)! It’s a very big deal.
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