tremble clef

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Charlene, "I've Never Been To Me" (1977)

"Listen to it! She says 'fuck'!" In 1983, I was in my teens, and spending part of the summer at scout camp. One afternoon, while we were enjoying some rare downtime (scout camp was strenuous), or possibly while we were scrubbing pots and pans (cooking rice on an open flame blackens utensils like nobody's business, for future reference), our scratchy radio started blaring Charlene's song (which, though first released in 1977, had just gotten around to being a hit).

"I swear," my friend said. "Listen!" So we crowded around the radio, our ears all a-prick as Charlene started the spoken word bit. "Hey, you know what paradise is?" she poignantly wondered, while we teetered on the edge of our flimsily-constructed bamboo seats. "It's a lie, a fantasy we create about people and places as we'd like them to be/But you know what truth is? It's that little baby you're holding/It's that man you f#%&* with this morning, the same one you're going to make love with tonight."

"There! There! She said 'the man you [whispers] fucked this morning.'"

"No, she didn't. She said 'fought.' That's why there was a 'with' after that. 'FOUGHT WITH.'"

"You can [whispers] fuck with someone, what! Besides, the sentence makes sense -- she [whispers] fucked with him in the morning, and will make love to him that night."

"No, it doesn't. She fought with him in the morning, and will make love to him that night. That's the point. Like, love is rough and opposite, or something."

"Who cares?! She MADE LOVE TO A PREACHERMAN!!" Our crass third interlocutor had a point, as unsophisticated as it was. Regardless of whether Charlene actually mouthed the word [whispers] fuck (she doesn't, of course), the song was in sum about [whispers] fucking.

It would be years before I understood how retrogressive the message of the song is. The case for this is fairly well-known by now. Structured as a direct address from Charlene to some other unnamed woman -- the opening line, "Hey lady, you lady, cursing at your life..." makes that abundantly clear -- "I've Never Been To Me" details all the risqué adventues of the narrator only to make the point that these all turned out to be empty and soul-sucking. Thus, she's sipped champagne on a yacht, and in Monte Carlo moved like Harlow and showed 'em what she got! But all this "subtle [?] whoring," she realizes, "costs too much to be free." The price, apparently, was self-discovery and -fulfillment. For while she's been to paradise, she's "never been to me." Awww! And what does "me" look like? The dark inside of a pig's intestine? No. It looks remarkably like a conventional, heterosexual, procreative family: "Sometimes I've been to crying for unborn children that might have made me complete/But I took the sweet life, I never knew I'd be bitter from the sweet." (These lines, alluding as they do to abortion, are also the ones that led some people to think that the song is anti-choice.) Indeed, the woman that Charlene addresses the song to -- someone who thinks of herself as a "discontented mother and a regimented wife" -- doesn't understand how good she has it, and now Charlene aims to point out to her that the sluttish alternative to being wife and mother (because there is no other, of course. It's either Madonna or whore for you lot!) is not all it's cracked up to be.

I heard and understood nothing of this misogyny in 1983. In my defense, I had the good excuse of being fourteeen and stupid. But there's probably more to the matter. Part of what makes the song objectionable is not just its profoundly anti-feminist (or at least anti-sexual liberation) message, but its deeply hypocritical stance. What attracted -- and distracted -- those teenage boys at camp was not the message about how women are better off seeking themselves through experiences, sexual or otherwise, but the actual litany of those experiences. "Don't look for your G spot!" the track admonished us, male and female listeners alike. "Don't travel the world in the belief that you will find yourself! Stay at home and be a good wife and mother!" But all we heard, or misheard, was: she fucked who in the what and where now?!

It's hard to imagine that the song didn't, at least on some level, intend this. Perhaps it even counted and capitalized on it. Much like, say, a report about pornography produced by conservative assholes who obviously got a collective boner from describing in lascivious detail all the images they were supposedly condemning -- or, you know, every currently publishing tabloid -- "I've Never Been To Me" tries to have its cake while castigating others for wanting to eat it. Buttfucking! How disgusting! Now let me describe for you in precise detail exactly why it is so. It is in this sense that Charlene's song is not simply a reactionary one, but hypocritically so.

How, then, can we defend why I -- confession time! -- loved the song at fourteen, and, with a gun to my head, might admit that I probably still do now? Some of it was undoubtedly due to the song's spectacular musical qualities. A cheesey ballad with dollops of cheez whizz on top, the song gets me in the gut each time it hits those drums right before it goes into the chorus: "But I wish someone had talked to me/Like I wanna talk to you/Ooh, I've (DOMP!) been to Georgia..." The mother of that effect occurs during the last section: "I've been to paradise, but I've never been...(DOMP, DOMP-DOMP!) to me..." The pregnant pause (oh, pun!), that beat, and those drums that rush in to fill the space, devastatingly captures the sense of regret the narrator feels, even if that faux-regret is driven by a dubious political agenda.

Lyrically, the song might be defensible if we shifted the lens slightly, so that we think of the track as preimarily about the self and travel. I think I had my suspicions back then, as I still do now, about the supposedly educational powers of travel. One less recognized point about the song is that it engages with a different set of cultural narratives, in place since (or because) of the traditon of the Grand Tour: the one that suggests that travel forms the self. It's an assumption that has been perpetuated, more than challenged, by all our contemporary stories that place a premium on the experiences we accrue from travel. Indeed, while I can think of zillions of texts that support this assumption (hi, Pico Iyer!), those that problematize it are harder to recall (though we could perhaps start with Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out, and Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together). In that light, "I've Never Been To Me" does a little bit of valuable cultural work, challenging the idea that such travel experiences necessarily benefit the self.

I don't imagine for a moment, however, that the "good" which Charlene's song does with regards to those stereotypes about travel really outweigh the "harm" it does with respect to women's liberation. As a defense -- not even of the song per se, but as a defense of my enjoyment of it -- it still leaves something to be desired.

But in the end, that's fine, because I think the best defense or deconstruction of the song has already occurred, and it of course happened in the film The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.



In just its opening minutes, the film turned Charlene's track into a camp classic like few others. It does this -- to take a leaf from theories of gender performativity -- not primarily by showing how ridiculous the song is when performed by a drag queen, but how absurd the song was in the first place. The scene, in other words, allows us to see that there was something always already over-the-top and exaggerated about "I've Never Been To Me." And how. After all, if the song is to be taken literally, Charlene has not only been to Nice and the Isle of Greece, but also Georgia and California, and at some point during that globetrotting –- my money is on the Georgia portion –- she was undressed by a king (we still have those? And heterosexual ones at that?). Busy trip. It's not exactly a naturalistic vacation video we're watching here, unless the cameras are following Joan Collins. Priscilla simply exposed the absurdity: of the scenario, and of anyone who would subscribe to it and the idea that a woman should give all that up to be a regimented wife.

To some extent, Priscilla was only taking its cue from the history of the song. As many people know, "I've Never Been To Me" was initially written by Ron Miller from a male point of view; in that incarnation, it was structured as an address by a (now-homeless! HYSTERICAL!) man to another, as he warns his benefactor, who's presumably frozen in the act of tossing loose change, about the dangers of fast living ("I've been to China & Asia Minor, on any ship that would sail/I made some noise with some good old boys/We wrecked a southern jail"). Look at me! I chased pussy and am now derelict! Obviously. The natural history of the song, in which it mutates from being about men to women, therefore showed the (negative) difference that can be made by switching the genders; Priscilla simply fucks with things more by keeping the female subject matter, but letting the song's "wisdom" be imparted by a drag queen. The space that the song's history opens, which Priscilla cannily moves to inhabit, is potentially infinite, and I certainly am rooting for a Charlene comeback in which she would re-sing the song, with its original lyric, while dressed up as a drag king. God, make it happen.

In the end, I can't claim that, at fourteen, I understood that "I've Never Been To Me" was, despite its disturbingly misogynistic lyric, nevertheless ultimately harmless because we could, and would, learn to parodically resignify that lyric. But it's nice to know that this turned out to be the case. Maybe I was a gifted child, capable of portending the gender revolution ahead. I've now been to that paradise. I'm coming for "me" next.

4 Comments:

  • So -- travel sucks, huh?

    I think that the spoken-word bridge is sort of quite cool, because it implicitly argues that true claims about identity are always relational ones (little baby, man you fought with). As a result, no one can ever get to "me," understood as an independent entity. "Me" is part of the paradise that's a lie/fantasy.

    As usual, Neil Tennant phrased all this far more economically: "your love is liberation."

    By Anonymous esque, at 8:19 PM  

  • Dear god, that was a long read. But informative! I didn't know it was originally for a man, nor in Priscilla which I totally need to see!

    By Anonymous Trixie, at 9:40 AM  

  • I thought I would make up for not having posted in almost a week. Otherwise I'm never long-winded! (Ha.)

    esque, I don't mean to simply argue for the diametrically opposite viewpoint, that travel doesn't help people "self-discover." I just think that the view that it does, is a construction that doesn't get foregrounded as one often enough. I.e., my point is not that travel doesn't lead to self-discovery, but that the idea that travel does, is not a natural one.

    I like the spoken bit too; I mean, it's the apotheosis of camp. But I don't think of it as saying the same thing as something like "Liberation." For one thing, it's not addressed to her lover (there're no signs that she even has one now; that's part of the "regret" she now has, I think -- she whored around and now is unloved), but to her "unborn" child. It's nice that identity is therefore relational, but the song also yuckily suggests that a very specific kind of relationality (mother and child) is the only one worth having.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 6:01 PM  

  • What is the power of this song? I think that for you it's a double-sided attraction (and I could be wrong): on the one hand, it's that gender-performative aspect (hypermediated), that points to a performative, theatrical sexuality as the locus of the real ('all night, they want the young lacanians!); on the other hand, the appeal of the confessional: this is true, I did these things, I travelled, I did it all, like Bogart & Bacall, but failed, somehow, to never quite arrive at the port of me until I realised now that we have still a few nautical miles to go. Your blog is the future and salvation of decontruction. (Georgia and California--gnarly rhyme?)I like the confessional which is folded into the theatrical--...

    By Blogger harvey molloy, at 11:43 AM  

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