Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Pussycat Dolls: Shhh (Shut Up and Prance)

En garde: Los Angeles would like to be taken seriously as a fashion capital. Here we have the backwater of London struggling along as the poor relation to Paris, New York, and Milan and now Los Angeles is trying to muscle its way in on the action. Los Angeles being what it is, it will probably succeed, but only because the people of Los Angeles never turn down an invitation. Call it self-promotion, call it malignant narcissism, call it the curse of shutter, but in Los Angeles anywhere a photographer is you should be too.

That's why the apparel shown at Los Angeles Fashion Week--or as its sponsor would like it to be known, Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Los Angeles--is of so little importance. There are actually so few opportunities for fringe "personalities" to receive any real media attention that to miss a chance to be mentioned or photographed would be to risk falling into the type of celebrity disrepair that doomed the career of Carolyn Ann Clark.

Never heard of Carolyn Ann Clark? She was an actress who played a plot-inconsequential nurse on The Guiding Light. She then moved to L. A, had a guest-starring role on Hunter, and made a low-budget horror movie; later she landed a bit part on Cheers (billed as "Woman") and another on Night Court ("Girl"); appeared in one episode each of One West Waikiki and Moesha; did a slightly larger one-off on 90210 and then vanished into the Valley.

This occurred a decade or so ago, before anyone really understand the power of egregious self-huckstering. What is important is not how many agents you harass with your latest head shots or voice-over reels, but how many times you get your picture in the paper, looking as if you are attending something mildly interesting and are mildly interesting looking yourself. We can thank Paris Hilton and Kimberly Stewart for this new type of promotion, because they are known to attend anything, often pantiless, and therefore the smart wannabe should be hot on their tails. Anywhere there are pantiless girls there will be hungry paparazzi. Lots of them.

Back when Carolyn Ann Clark was making the rounds, there was still a certain circumspection to the acting profession; it could be conducted with quiet good taste and noble intentions. There was no Rock of Love with Brett Michaels or Celebrity Fit Club (a sad but telling exercise in fanning the falsest of hopes). Carolyn Ann Clark wouldn't have been caught dead in either; there would be no drunk-driving arrests, no straight-to0-video sex tapes, no talking to spaceships , and no dating Tommy Lee.

No parts, either, but that's because Hollywood used to conduct itself in a very formal manner, compared to today's frontal assault on the cheapest possible dollar. You used to have to work very hard to get that two-liner on Cheers and it was considered quite the coup to have done so. That was back in the day when casting agents wouldn't look twice at someone who hadn't done anything, or who didn't already have something of a name. This is why a semi-well-known soap actress ended up being billed as the anonymous "Girl."

Now, it really depends on who has the most lurid appeal. People like Traci Lords come to mind; it was she who opened the door for Jenna Jamison and Paris Hilton and Tara Reid. Craft? You think anyone cares about craft? That's for serious dramatic actors only, and also for those who keep those well-oiled acting studios out in the Valley in business. The goal is money, baby, and exposure. Even the writers know that; who gives a fig about artistic integrity and the Great American Novel when writing creaky jokes for Gary Shandling pays so darn well? And have you ever taken a good look at a serious writer? They are the personification of anguish. They've hung around the old neighborhood long enough to write a pretty good book about it, but it's almost killed them. They have bags under their eyes. They have jowls, they look bloated and ill. This is why they've traditionally never done well as screenwriters. A jowl in New York may be a sign of intellect and of suffering for one's art, but in Los Angeles it's a sign of stupidity.

If you want to be seen, you have to get out, which is why Los Angeles Fashion Week exists in the first place. Don't kid yourself, it's not about young American designers or showcases for up-and-comers. It's about Hollywood's favorite party entertainment--the Name Game--and for creating opportunities for other names to be photographed or mentioned while at your show.

Unless you're seriously obsessive, you won't recognize any name on the MB Fashion Week calendar except for Lauren Conrad, but in what context you've heard her name before you can't be sure because you don't watch MTV. The rest of the schedule is filled with the likes of Joseph Domingo, Whitley Kros, and Falguni & Shane Peacock, which sounds like a magician and his assistant . You're supposed to know something about Ashley Paige, but I suspect this is because Ashley Paige sends models down the runway in swimsuits that look like underwear and you can tell that all the models have fresh bikini waxes.

That leaves the Pussycat Dolls by Robin Antin as the biggest name of the week. In case you are out of the loop (or live in Fresno), the Pussycat Dolls are the biggest entertainment franchise to come out of L. A. since Disney. Originally a troupe of cheeky burlesque performers headed by Carmen Electra and other acting non-entities, they were spun off into an honest-to-goodness singing act in 2003. This occurred on the tail of the original Dolls' appearing in Maxim, the men's magazine for the man who was tired of hiding his Victoria's Secret catalogues in the back of the closet. Since men's interest in whom Maxim considers hot borders on the pathological, the Dolls and their newly launched singing career were an overnight success.

It didn't hurt that Antin is one of Hollywood's shrewdest businesswomen. Antin knows that more men than women watch the annual Victoria's Secret fashion show, and that given half a chance most men can turn just about anything into pornography. Along with record producer Jimmy Iovine, she also grasped that taunting men--as in the Dolls' first hit single "Don't Cha," with its sing-along chorus "Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?"--and forcing them into an envious lather would result not just in onanism but in exceptional sales.

The occasion for the Dolls' appearance at Fashion Week was the debut of Antin's Doll-branded Shhh lingerie. It also served as another performance opportunity for the group and for various male celebs to get their names in print as having been on the guest list. Whether the lingerie is worthwhile fashion or well made is irrelevant. Some claim that Antin's entry into lingerie is taking up the slack left over by Victoria's Secret, whose CEO recently decided that perhaps the mall favorite had crossed the line into "too sexy." (Maybe the CEO, Sharon Tunney, became aware that the average age of the VS customer is now 11, which would indeed result in a downturn in net income.) Whatever the reason, the Dolls are always ripe for marketing and more promotion, so Antin sent out a hurried collection of underwear that isn't meant to be worn under anything. And the Dolls got to sing and everyone went home happy.

Except, that is, cranky journalists who realize there is no such thing as a free lunch, especially not in Hollywood, where a sweet roll can set you back twelve bucks and a career. The lingerie show was an edifying spectacle where we learned that our tastes really are that low, that we do not know how to have a good time, and that we should probably throw down the mighty pen and take a pole-dancing class instead.

The first part of the show featured models clomping around in half-laced boots. You weren't supposed to look at the boots. The boots were merely there to give things some indie cred and to separate what the Dolls do from what Heidi Klum used to do. You were supposed to admire how half-naked bottoms appeared at a distance like growths, and how several of the girls walked no better than those sad little creatures on America's Next Top Model. Critical opinion is of no value to you or anyone else, not when we have Dolls' lead singer Nicole Scherzinger trying on Nina Simone and coming up partially constipated. In order to distract you from this small bit of overreaching, the other Dolls enacted a chair dance straight out of a regional theatre production of Cabaret, except the Dolls spread their legs wider.

More lingerie followed, leading up to an extended performance set in which the Dolls sang and ground their behinds to songs that brought the casual observer to a not-so-casual question:

Why are the Dolls, for lack of a better word, so ghetto? Scherzinger sounds like one of Tyra Banks' rescue stories, someone from the inner city who will never be rid of the "wazzup" that otherwise would keep her forever bagging groceries at the local Safeway. No offense to Ms. Scherzinger, but what is wrong with sounding upwardly mobile?

Does it matter, or do you just want her to climb onto your lap and undulate?

Seriously, though, the tie-in between the Dolls and hip-hop culture is what makes the franchise a success. It's got that urban--not urbane--beat that irritates everyone over the age of 40. And who knew that their dance routines were so easy to master? With a rewind button, they can easily be performed at home after watching them twice. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but men love this stuff. Check any fluff journalism piece about how to keep a man from straying and fake strip routines rank right up there with threesomes. Or maybe they keep a man from requesting threesomes, so they might not be such a bad idea after all.

Really, the only bad idea was a jangly cover version of the Guess Who's "American Woman," minus the 1:15-minute intro and the "No Sugar Tonight" section that would have been antithetical to the message.

The Dolls show was about as edifying as things get in LA these days. It represents LA at its finest and most commercial moment, even more so than Shrek. If the reviewers mentioned the abundance of skin and struggled to find anything meritorious to say about the garments, that's only because we have cellulite and are looking for exposure ourselves.

It wasn't always this way. Los Angeles has done just fine being the capital of something else. The city isn't really used to having to struggle; it is used to sweeping us off our feet and into its diamond dust where we lose all sense of proportion and good taste. Now that it actually has to work for credibility, it underestimates our all-American taste for processed cheese.


Imelda Matt said...

Falguni & Shane Peacock also sounds like a range of bath salts that one would snatch from the dump bins at Rite Aid. I never really understood the purpose of LA Fashion Week - thanks for clearing that up.

So it’s not bad enough that my 11-year-old niece trots around in a Mary-Kate and Ashley g-string! Now her trailer park mother can buy a mismatched PCD suspender belt…she’ll be up the duff before she’s 13, smoking menthol cigarettes and eating processed cheese.

dressedandpressed said...

God, I knew LA was twisted but not this twisted. I feel enlightened. Also slightly uneasy...

susie_bubble said...

LA fashion week doesn't need to be this way... I think their struggle for credibility can't really be solved by these Lauren Conrad/Pussycat Doll type shows.... sounds naive but what is wrong with getting to the essence of a yet-to-be-established fashion week and showcase young designers with actual talent? If London is an official fashion week and does that in abundance, why not LA?

Iheartfashion said...

Now I remember why I don't pay attention to L.A. fashion week...

K.Line said...

Suzanna, this is genius! I can just see the PCDs in my mind's eye doing that cabaret dance number - with their legs splayed as far apart as human anatomy allows. I cannot tell you how much that "act" annoys me. I don't care how genius Robin Antin's business marketing and promotional skills happen to be. Just call me middle aged. They make me yearn for a time when talent actually meant something. K

enc said...

The Dolls' appeal is a Phenomenon, to say the least. I remember watching Antin's girls swanning around on brother Jonathan's show "Blow Out" a few years ago. I'd known about the Dolls before that, but had dismissed them as the latest trend. Of course, I see from a strict marketing/male-appeal standpoint the how/why of their fame, but I'm still scratching my head about the music. It really shot up to the top. I was more shocked to read that Jimmy Iovine (of Tom Petty-production fame) was working with them.

Thomas said...

That second top picture has ruined my afternoon. And am I the only man living who finds the PCDs just...terrible?

At least they can sing well...oh wait. They can't.

Maybe I should drink a lot less coffee said...

Brilliant. God, isn't it sad to see hard work completely put to shame. For a second I thought fashion design was about fabric chemistry, flawless detailed stitching, and creating original silhouettes while emulating the past at the same time. Silly me, fashion design is simply taking a string and sticking it in a girls ass. And as for Maxim being pathological, you are correct. They named Tina Faye as one of the top 5 most undesirable women on television. And by undesirable they mean women who are pretty and came use more then 3 4 syllable words in a sentence. Stupid apes with keyboards in front of them....

Suzanna Mars said...

Hey, Coffee, I love Tina Fey and think she's aces. I find Maxim repugnant, but then again I understand its place in modern culture; it's a lowbrow Esquire without the style. And I can't honestly say that I know any men who read it, even as it leers out at you from every convenience store and truck stop in America.