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Tuning In: Zooey Deschanel with the Band

This is my final installment of "Tuning In" for Bitch. I had a blast writing the series, enjoyed the discussions these entries generated, and appreciated the support the staff gave in putting this series together. While I'm sad to see it end, I look forward to reading current and future guest contributors' blog series. And for those who want to continue "tuning in," I encourage you to follow my blog, Feminist Music Geek. You can also follow me on Twitter.

I'll leave you with my thoughts on a proposed HBO series adapted from Pamela Des Barres' 1987 memoir I'm with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, which documented her boomer youth as vanguard groupie Pamela Ann Miller. Mike Fleming at Deadline Hollywood reported the item earlier this year. While it is currently listed as untitled and in production on Deschanel's IMDb profile, I still think this is an interesting though problematic project for the actress.

First, there is the matter of the source material. I'm With the Band is still in print and considered vital documentation of rock's free love era. The book catapulted Des Barres into a successful writing career as well. Yet it also incited contention amongst many feminist critics. Des Barres, who herself identifies her actions as feminist, was surprised by this response. Having just read the memoir in anticipation of this entry, I understand the fuss.

Apart from finding the author's writing and storytelling unremarkable despite the book's supposedly lurid content, I had difficulty conceptualizing groupies as empowered, autonomous beings. I don't want to slut-shame or pathologize the author, though I cringed every time she described her absentee father as her "big, gorgeous daddy." If Des Barres wanted to travel, attend concerts, and have sex with a bunch of male rock stars, I don't begrudge her those good times. 

I admit that it is hard for me to see how these actions were revolutionary. I came of age during the third wave's emphasis on sexual agency following the sex wars. These values were compromised by the noxious label of "do me feminism" before mass culture folded them into postfeminism. But as several literary and critical works note, the decision many white girls and women made to drop out of conventional society was quite radical for its time, as well as an indication of how few options were available to them. Of course, we can't overlook how identity markers like class, race, and sexual orientation made it easier for some to drop out while many had to stay at home, in the closet, or on their side of the city.

Yet to claim that occupying the role of groupie is feminist on the basis of choice seems to enervate the political muscle of the word and obscure the reality that Des Barres and many of her friends relied on successful male professionals to define their self-worth and dictate their personal trajectories. Furthermore, while these women perceived themselves as free agents–Cynthia Plaster Caster turned her fandom into a form of artistic expression -- they were not always treated this way by the men with whom they were involved. In I'm With the Band, Des Barres is dumped by Jimmy Page for a pubescent fan, mistreated by a possessive Don Johnson, and ignored by guitarist Chris Hillman. She does step out with Mick Jagger and a few others, but I'd hardly call that a victory. Empowerment through cheap sex doesn't make up for all the self-doubt she evinces throughout her memoir in response to her lovers' actions.

But this story could make for interesting television if executive producer Deschanel gets good people involved. I'd especially like to see attention paid to the era's changing gender, sexual, and racial politics. I hope these issues would be rendered in a complex, sensitive manner, as Mad Men at times evinces with bracing candor.

Playing Des Barres could be smart preservation of Deschanel's musically savvy image. She's long associated herself with projects that position her as boutique indie cinema's hipster darling and manic pixie dream girl, aligning herself with actresses like Natalie Portman, Ellen Page, Kat Dennings, Olivia Thirlby, and Kristen Stewart. Demonstrating knowledge about music has been central to her persona, most notably in (500) Days of Summer and Almost Famous, both of which I've written about at length on my blog. BUST's cover girl is also the vocalist for She & Him, her indie pop outfit with M. Ward. And not that we should foreground celebrities romantic lives in our readings of them, but she is married to Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. In short, apart from Chloë Sevigny, few actresses are better positioned as indie's cultural ambassadors than Deschanel.

It's also interesting that the medium Deschanel is looking to work with is television, as she is a film actress apart from appearances as a guest judge on Top Chef or Bones, the Fox procedural on which her sister stars. So were Sevigny and Page. However, Sevigny changed the emphasis placed on film with her breakthrough performance on Big Love. Page hosted Saturday Night Live, appeared as tween pop sensation Alaska Nebraska in a recent Simpsons episode, delivered PSAs against Burma's military dictatorship, and is a spokesperson for Cisco. Preceding the announcement of Deschanel's HBO deal, buzz gathered around a project Page was doing with Alia Shawkat for the network about two twenty-something girlfriends who stitch 'n bitch. Given television's cultural renaissance in the past decade, it seems foolish for niche actors not to explore the medium's possibilities.

I'm curious what Deschanel will bring to the role, as she's playing Kate Hudson's Penny Lane in Almost Famous instead of the cool older sister with the bitchin' record collection. Frankly, before reading the memoir, I thought Deschanel was miscast. I imagined Des Barres possessing the wise swagger, crackling wit, and menacing sensuality of Fairuza Balk's Sapphire character. But if the author's depiction of herself is any indication, Deschanel's performance as dream girl Summer Finn may have prepared her for the role. Both characters are fetishized as excessively feminine, often to the point of infantilization by their male suitors, who treat them less like people and more like vessels through which to funnel their one-sided desires. Both share a love for vintage attire, especially granny dresses and baby doll shifts. Deschanel could probably leverage her deal with Cotton for the production's wardrobe department.

Yet I hope the show digs past the chintz and lace of life on the road to delve into Des Barres's attempts to break into show business. She struggled to become an actress, mainly securing cameo performances in skin flicks where she wore padded bras or was relegated to the background to obscure her small breasts. This seems like an area that would offer rich commentary on the film industry's sexist and misogynistic practices.

In addition, Des Barres sang back-up on some male artists' recordings. She was also a member of the Girls Together Outrageously, a vocal ensemble comprised of groupies. Admittedly, the GTOs were assembled by Frank Zappa and accompanied by his band, the Mothers of Invention. Also, some of their songs are unfortunate relics of the era, with upsetting references to hypersexualized black men and predatory lesbians. But seeing Des Barres attempt to create something artistic may be worth exploring. At the very least, we know Deschanel has the pipes.

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Comments

12 comments have been made. Post a comment.

On the fence about this.

Okay, I should start by saying that I have a complete feminist blind spot when it comes to Pamela Des Barres and this book in particular. I love I'm With the Band and will defend it forever, so I can't presume to be objective here. But I have to say I don't remember Des Barres labeling the *sexual* aspect of the life she led as either feminist or revolutionary. Did she? I'm mean, she was really young when she kept the diary entries that Des Barres recreates in the book, and there's definitely mention of how new and crazy and different the scene was, but from what I recall the parts where she writes about being part of something groundbreaking were the parts when she discusses being in the GTOS, working with Frank Zappa, and being part of the creative musical scene in Hollywood -- not she part where she's talking about having Keith Moon sexytime. 

As for Zooey Deschanel's project, a few thoughts. One: I'd definitely rather see this as an HBO films than as a major motion picture, since HBO does consistently smart female-focused projects, as opposed to something like The Banger Sisters. Two: The thing that I really love about the book is how much Des Barres reveals about herself as a goofy, starry-eyed kid who is torn between wanting to be "good" (traditional girlfriend or wife, spiritually settled and unconflicted, acceptable to the mainstream) and wanting to follow her love of music and the people making it. I can't quite picture how Deschanel is going to pull that off, since in everything she's been in she seems almost completely opaque. Regardless, I'm happy it's her and not Kate Hudson, whose Almost Famous character made me want to poke my eyes out with my soda straw. (It's funny that you picture Des Barres being more like Sapphire; I picture her more as Polexia -- younger, more awkward, playing dress-up to some extent.)

Finally, I really really hope that no one decides it's a good idea to have Russell Brand play Jimmy Page. As long as that doesn't happen, I'll see the shit out of this thing.

 

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Andi Zeisler, cofounder and editorial/creative director

Comments Policy: Like to hear it? Here it go!

On the fence about this.

Thanks, Andi. I wanted to hear from a feminist who liked I'm With the Band, so I appreciate your insights. I'd be interested in hearing more about how you came to it and how it influenced you and your feminist politics.

Let me be clear about Des Barres's take on the f-word first. She doesn't refer to herself as a feminist or a revolutionary. However, in one of the added passages to the edition of the book that I read and in some interviews she does refer to her actions as being feminist. I also felt that she was squarely positioning herself as a part of the sexual revolution throughout the book, though we may be interpretting her words differently.

Also, I assumed Des Barres was like Sapphire before I read the book. I'm not sure why or how I came to this impression, though Sapphire is my favorite groupie (she's also the character Austin Chronicle writer Margaret Moser identified with the most). I wonder if there's a gulf between how Des Barres perceives herself, which may be more in line with Polexia, and how she's revered as groupiedom's legendary golden girl, which to me is pure Penny Lane (incidentally, Lane is the only performance from Hudson I've remotely liked, even if she just reminds me of her mom and makes me cluck my beard at the idea of mother-daughter actresses playing groupies).

One thing I liked about the book a great deal and hope the series emphasizes is the homosocial bonds developed between the groupies. Attention must be paid to Mercy, Cynderella, Beverly, Sparky, Cynthia, and the rest of the girls. 

Finally, I completely agree with the network and the medium being a great place to explore the nuances of this story. Despite my reservations, I too will see the shit out of this thing . . . barring any threat of involvement from Russell Brand. ;)

Alyx Vesey

your russell brand comment

Don't go!

I kid, I kid. I knew this day would come. Many thanks for all your pieces and insights; I'll miss your presence in the Bitch community!

All your entries have been wonderful, and this one's no exception. While I'm not familiar with Des Barres, I have something of a fascination with celebrity memoirs, the more outlandish the better. I'm curious to see how well-received the adaptation will be in feminist circles (including FMG?) assuming it does get made, since you're right that the set-up is rife with opportunity for comment on the music industry's gender politics. Thus far, I haven't been as impressed with Deschanel as, say, Ellen Page, but her roles' emphasis on music is distinctive. I haven't seen Yes Man, but I hear her character in that film was heavily music-oriented as well.

Yes but still not worth it.

I saw Yes Man and I mainly just wish I could get my two hours and $3 back. Deschanel played the quintessential manic pixie dream girl, complete with a vespa and quirky hobbies (including but not limited to taking photos with a vintage camera and encouraging the men in her life to "carpe diem" or whatever). That being said, her character was definitely into indie music and was even in a band. In fact, her band was maybe the only bright spot in that turdburger of a movie. Here is clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdzOkuIqnR8

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

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Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

Yes but still not worth it.

Agreed, Kelsey. Her weird glam cabaret band Munchausen by Proxy was really the only thing that movie had going for it, truly. Oh, and she does wear a navy coat with red piping that I coveted. Otherwise, shudder.

I thought I about discussing Yes Man in this post to further illustrate the cultivation of Deschanel's persona. I had to choose between it and The Spirit during a family outing to the multiplex during the holidays (my partner and I accompanied members of the family to each and later fought over who made the worse decision). Deschanel totally functions as the manic pixie dream girl to Jim Carrey's corporate sad-sack. And ugh to her photography hobbies, as she actually leads a group meet-up that takes pictures while jogging. OHI'MSOQUIRKY. Do not waste your time, TheBadassMuppet, but thank you for reading.

Alyx Vesey

Great Post!

Hey Alyx,

I really enjoyed this post despite my lack of familiarity with I'm With the Band. I completely agree with you that Deschanel's decision to take on this project seems completely in line with her star persona, even if (as Andi points out) the role may require more nuance than her previous work. I'll be interested to see how it pans out and looking forward to your full assessment of the final product!

Cheers!

Caitlin

Just remembered

Deschanel was wonderful as the music teacher, Miss Edmunds, in Bridge to Terabithia. While the adaptation had its problems, I thought she played the character very close to Paterson's description and captured the ways in which music stimulates the kids' imaginations. She also preserved some of Miss Edmunds' earthy, hippie-holdout vibe even though the story was no longer set shortly after the Vietnam War. Then again, her "opaqueness" as Andi puts it might have been an asset in this case, since the character has mystery about her.

groupie narratives make me uneasy

because they highlight the lack of other women in music narratives. i mean, i know they just made a runaways movie, but i've always been irritated with the attention groupie culture gets when there are women -making- music everywhere. i'll admit though, it might be an issue of my only registering when an article is about groupies. but i cringe every time cynthia plaster caster is touted somewhere.

There's really just one groupie I like...

I find it nearly impossible to get excited about or even interested in groupie narratives. No matter how you spin it (in my opinion, of course), it's a story of women spending incredible effort and heartache to get close to people who are spending their time MAKING and DOING things. The groupies are a side note to them. Sure—it can result in some interesting stories—but frankly, I don't even want to hear about Jimmy Page's penis etc. There is one groupie who cracks me up to no end (and I would argue that in this case the joke's on her for bragging about it)—Patsy of Absolutely Fabulous fame.

 

Patsy: Ey, Eddy, Eddy, remember that weekend with Mick and
the boys? Laughs Fantastic!
Edina: Fabulous days, darling. [To Saffy] Patsy used
to go out with Keith Moon, sweetie.
Patsy: Yeah, sort of. I mean, I woke up underneath him in a
hotel bedroom once.
Edina: Yeah, still, that was going steady for the 60s,
believe me.

 

Take note: Opinions expressed are those of their respective authors, not necessarily those of Bitch. Dig?

Don't be easily cheated by this fraud woman.

I’m so surprised that many people still believe Pamela Des Barres’s one-sided claims on rock stars,especially on Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page.
If you’ll check out her book and true history,the correct tour timeline(dates and places) of Led Zep,you’ll find so many faults in her book. I think she lied that she kept a diary.

She never went to Las Vegas with LZ guys to attend the Elvis Presley concert and she never attended at Texas International Pop Fetival with Jimmy on August 31,1969.
She never met Jimmy and Robert on April 1970 and she never spent with Jimmy at Hyatt House on April 14-15,1970. Their schedule was very clear and LZ didn’t have any concerts in Los Angels on April,1970.

There are another several inaccuracies in her book too. Why does she fabricate many stories on Jimmy Page?I really don’t understand why Pamela still sticks to Jimmy despite her slightest relationship with him. She might have had a sex with him one or two times in 1969,but she was never invited to his houses. Typical one-nighter!
Jimmy Page was a family man at heart because he had said it since the middle of the 70’s. None of LZ guys broke their family lives in heyday. It means groupies were just sex toys or unpaid whores on the road. I really don’t want to be such a woman.

Pamela is a big fraud.

I’m so surprised that many people still believe Pamela Des Barres’s one-sided claims on rock stars,especially on Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page.If you’ll check out her book and true history,the correct tour timeline(dates and places) of Led Zep,you’ll find so many faults in her book.
I think she lied that she kept a diary.

She never went to Las Vegas with LZ guys to attend the Elvis Presley concert and she never attended at Texas International Pop Fetival with Jimmy on August 31,1969.
She never met Jimmy and Robert on April 1970 and she never spent with Jimmy at Hyatt House on April 14-15,1970. Their schedule was very clear and LZ didn’t have any concerts in Los Angels on April,1970.

There are another several inaccuracies in her book too. Why does she fabricate many stories on Jimmy Page?I really don’t understand why Pamela still sticks to Jimmy despite her slightest relationship with him. She might have had a sex with him one or two times in 1969,but she was never invited to his houses. Typical one-nighter!

Jimmy Page was a family man at heart because he had said it since the middle of the 70’s. None of LZ guys broke their family lives in heyday. It means groupies were just sex toys or unpaid whores on the road. I really don’t want to be such a woman.