Tuning In: The L Word's Planet and its musical orbiters
I recently finished Tara Rodgers's Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound. I picked up the book at the publishers' expo for Console-ing Passions, where I also got to meet some Bitch staffers. Pink Noises
is a great collection of interviews Rodgers conducted over the past decade with female electronic musicians and composers. Some of the women featured are Le Tigre, Neotropic, Ikue Mori, DJ Rekha, and Pauline Oliveros. The book acknowledges that these artists are both musicians and technicians, cultural positions traditionally perceived to be occupied by men. Many of them, as Alley Hector noted in her review for AfterEllen, are also lesbians.
This dispels the myth of what Bev Stanton refers to in her interview as the "granola ghost." This term refers to the stereotype that all lesbians listen to earnest folk rock. Now, I'm not here to dismiss the tastes of lesbian fans of, say, the Indigo Girls. But I take Stanton's larger point, which is that lesbians have a variety of preferences. Some of them, perhaps even a few who embrace hipster style, may even stay ahead of the curve when it comes to contemporary music.
So today, I thought I'd turn our attention to Showtime's The L Word. I'll admit that the Los Angeles-based ensemble dramedy created by Ilene Chaiken was marred by over-the-top situations, uneven character development, hackneyed writing, a bevy of skinny femmes, and racially problematic casting decisions. It also featured one of the worst theme songs ever, which was written and performed by BETTY.
However, until the final season I was hooked. I started watching with my girlfriends in college toward the end of Sex and the City's run on HBO (L Word fans may recall that the show's original tag line was "Same Sex, Different City"). I was invested in many of the L Word's characters and their long, interconnected histories with one another. I appreciated the incorporation of lesbian icons through dialogue or cameos, and the attention drawn to lesser-known cultural practices like Dinah Shore Weekend or the prevalence of lesbian nuns. I liked the sex, even though it was often of the lipstick variety. Most of all, I enjoyed the role music played in the women's lives.
My favorite character was Alice Pieszecki, a bisexual journalist and radio personality played by Leisha Hailey. Prior to her work here and in a string of potentially queer Yoplait commercials, the actress made a name for herself as one-half of folk outfit the Murmurs, played a musician in Alex Sichel's lesbian coming-of-age movie All Over Me, and has also recorded as a member of electro duo Uh Huh Her.
Hailey's professional background was not central for Pieszecki's characterization, though music did factor into her job as a deejay. She'd create thematic playlists featuring lesbian-identified musical acts like Tegan and Sara. She would also use her program to talk at length about political and personal matters which, for an out queer woman, tend to be intertwined.
Another character I liked was Carmen de la Pica Morales, a DJ portrayed by Sarah Shahi. Perhaps the character who most closely aligns with the culture of female musicians Rodgers focuses on, Morales is shown throughout her stint as a cast principal as being adept with technology and privy to how to keep a dance floor moving. I did find her glamorous, skimpy attire not without its own issues -- particularly when she catered to a heterosexual male clientele. But her character also proved that women get behind the turntables, and that many female deejays are lesbians.
The last character I'd like to draw attention to is Kit Porter, rendered by the legendary Pam Grier. She is the older half-sister to Bette (Jennifer Beals), a powerful figure in the art world. Porter was a recovering alcoholic and professional singer who worked with artists like Nona Hendryx and Snoop Dogg. Also, despite being the only "straight" women in her group of friends, she was often one of the most open-minded about her own sexuality. During the series' run, she was involved with a drag king, a younger man, a lesbian, and a drag queen.
Finally, I'd like to note the group's meeting place, a coffeehouse called The Planet, which Porter owned. It also doubled as a concert venue. While it's implausible that a space of its size could accommodate international touring acts and their fans, I enjoyed seeing artists like Sleater-Kinney, the B-52s, and Goldfrapp take the stage as the ladies cheered them on. Many of the acts have queer fanbases, for whom the show's characters represented. Furthermore, several of the artists themselves identify as members of the LBGTQI communit(ies).
Thus, the multiple ways in which the show used music suggests its cultural contribution to making lesbian culture both visible and audible on television.
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