- Dusty! Queen of the Postmods
Annie Randall's groundbreaking book on Dusty Springfield has now been in print for over three years, but you wouldn't know it. Although this review appears many months after the book's publication in 2008, in many ways Randall's work still feels timely to me, as Dusty! Queen of the Postmods continues to have startlingly topical relevance. It speaks to an article I read last week and to a radio interview I heard last night. Its theoretical turn to female camp and identity discourses in the final chapter resonates strongly with the post-postfeminist critique that has emerged in the last two years highlighting what Natasha Walters calls the New Sexism and the New Determinism, which I will be teaching next semester. And while the book was published during a miniwave of popular interest in 1960s women—the Victoria and Albert Museum's Story of the Supremes exhibit touring the world; a whole host of British recording talents reimagining the sounds of sixties' girl groups; high-couture and high-street fashion alike mimicking the colors and lines of vintage Carnaby Street—at this remove it is possible to see that Randall's sense of Dusty's lasting legacy still has currency, even though retro trends have moved on.
Even by virtue of its subject matter, Dusty! Queen of the Postmods is unusual: there are just not very many well-considered books on female popular singers around. As a musicological document, it is doubly rare, for—in the face of the still-prevalent rockism of popular music journalism and musicology—it is a full-length study of a female pop singer, giving value to a genre and style that still rest on the margins of intellectual respectability. What makes the book groundbreaking is that it is not a biography or tribute, authorized or otherwise, nor even a "life and works" text but a well-theorized, academically minded enterprise: part discourse analysis, part cultural narrative, part microhistory. That it is written with clear affection and admiration for its subject does not take away from its scholarly achievement. [End Page 139]
Dusty! Queen of the Postmods is relatively compact: under two hundred pages (excluding the bibliography and index), it has an introduction, four chapters, and two appendices detailing a time line and a dramatis personae. Rather than presenting a strictly chronological view of Dusty's achievements, Randall chooses to interrogate Dusty and her anything-but-fixed identity in four themed chapters that nonetheless have a broadly chronological structure, using one or more methodological approaches in each chapter to examine the material. The introduction itself opens with an autobiographical anecdote that acts as a qualifier for all that follows: for instance, while summarizing the third chapter—a performance analysis of Dusty's über-produced ballads—in a deft mirroring of Dusty's own deliberate use of visual and vocal hyperbole, Randall embraces her inner narrative ethnographer and explains, "If the tone of my observations seems overheated, it is purely intentional and based on my own and many other fans' reactions to Dusty's pop arias" (8).
The first chapter, "Dusty's Hair," introduces the reader to the main discourses of identity that Dusty and her audiences negotiated together, both visually and aurally, at the start of her career: gender, race, nationality, class, and sexual orientation. Randall outlines the parameters of Dusty's "hyperfemininity," which acted as a masquerade, enabling her to participate in transgressive, destabilizing appropriations of subjectivities that opposed her "real" white, feminine, gay, middle-class identity. In this chapter, Randall also coins the word "Dustifyin(g)"—referring to Henry Louis Gates's concept of signifyin(g) in African American music—to encapsulate the troping process of knowing allusion and re-vision that Springfield applied not just to the repertoire she adopted from American soul artists but also to her own compositions and those she created with her backup singers. In so doing she created her own distinct vocal identity, which, in listening, although clearly constructed paradoxically, could never be wholly separated from her corporeal...