Skip to main content

Women in the 'Girls Gone Wild' Era

Ariel Levy is a contributing editor at New York magazine, where she writes about sexuality, culture and gender politics. Her new book is Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. One reviewer writes that Levy "strips the 'Girls Gone Wild' culture of its cuteness in her provocative [book], arguing that post-feminist poster girls such as Playboy Bunnies offer only faux empowerment."

30:09

Guest

Host

Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on November 28, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 28, 2006: Interview with Ariel Levy; Interview with Joel Forrester and Phillip Johnston.

Transcript

DATE November 28, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Ariel Levy, columnist for New York magazine, on her
book "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch
Culture," and the paradox of how being a sex worker is now
considered empowering and dressing like a slut is liberation
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Ariel Levy is trying to figure out why a tawdry, tarty, cartoon-like
version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous. Why movie stars who
talk about strong women and empowerment dress, quote, "like massage parlor
geishas and dominatrixes." And why some of her female friends started going to
strip clubs and describe the experience as liberating and rebellious.

Levy considers these and other related questions in her book "Female
Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture," which has recently
come out in paperback. Levy is a contributing editor at New York magazine,
where she writes about sexuality, culture, and gender politics.

Ariel Levy, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with just like a basic
definition of what do you mean by "raunch culture"?

Ms. ARIEL LEVY: Well, it's sort of this term I made up to describe what I
see as the spread of the values and aesthetics of a red light district into
mainstream culture. So I just was noticing, you know, maybe five or six years
ago, before I wrote this book, that it was like every time I left the house, I
would see a teenage girl with the Playboy bunny on her t-shirt. And every
time I turned on the television, it felt like no matter what time it was, or
what channel I had the thing tuned to, there was always a show on about
strippers. And it just, it struck me that as a culture, we had sort of become
like one big lap dance club.

GROSS: And what do you mean by "female chauvinist pigs"?

Ms. LEVY: Well, the title's, you know, it's obviously a play on the old
concept of a male chauvinist pig. So if male chauvinists pigs were guys who
treated women like pieces of meat, then female chauvinist pigs are women who
make sex objects of other women and of themselves.

GROSS: Are there certain celebrities who you think epitomize the phenomenon
that you're talking about?

Ms. LEVY: The women who really epitomize this are sex workers, are like
Jenna Jameson, who's the top-selling adult film star on planet Earth. And she
had this memoir a few years ago that was on the best seller list. And to me,
what was so interesting about this, about, you know, having somebody who was
getting paid to have sex be the sort of spokesperson, supposedly, for sexual
liberation. You know, this is a woman who, like any other sex worker, whose
job it is to fake lust.

So I just felt there was something peculiar about us, you know, women in
America thinking that we were going to imitate an imitation of female sexual
pleasure and power as embodied by a sex worker and thereby become in touch
with ourselves sexually.

GROSS: You know, in the language of `60s feminism, dressing in a very kind of
sexually available way to please men was considered objectification. You
know, the result of men seeing your body as a sexual object and you responding
by dressing in a sexual, objectified way.

Ms. LEVY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But now a lot of women will tell you, `No, no, that's post-feminism.
Now, because feminism's victory, so many of them have been achieved, and we
don't really have to worry about that anymore. We're free to dress as
sexually as we want to, and we're doing it ourselves. Nobody's objectifying
us. That's us choosing to do this, so it's liberating, it's power.' What's
your answer to that?

Ms. LEVY: I guess, I just--to me, it was sort of like one of these things
where everybody was nodding along saying, `Yes, of course, you know, strippers
equal feminism, porn stars equal empowerment.' And at some point, it's like
the emperor has no clothes. Like, I don't understand why all these things
suddenly mean the opposite of what feminists told us they meant. You know, I
mean, it's supposed to be this ironic joke, but at some point, I think the
joke's on us, if we're, you know, if we're all looking up to women who aren't
actually having sex because they want to.

I mean, in other words, I think if we're going to have sexual role models as
women, it ought to be the women who get the most pleasure from sex, not the
women who get paid the most to do it.

GROSS: But wait. What about the idea that this is post-feminist? This is
about--this is self-empowerment? You know, `Men aren't making me dress this
way; I'm choosing to do it myself. It's powerful to be proud of my body and
reveal it.'

Ms. LEVY: Yeah, I mean, I think the thing about it is that, certainly, I
think that it's fantastic that women have options, that women have, you know,
more choices, and that the feminist movement did make so much, you know, just
an enormous amount of progress in a stunning, extremely short period of time.
I mean, constantly when I was doing this research, constantly struck by all
the things that have happened that I take for granted.

I mean, just, when they started the second wave of the feminist movement,
women of course couldn't get a checking account without a signature from their
husband or father, and there was no such thing as contraception for unmarried
women legally. And of course, there was no such thing as abortion.

So I mean, it's amazing what's happened. It's great that women have more
choices. But I think in terms of the argument that exhibitionism is
automatically some kind of expression of power, I don't necessarily buy that.

An example of how it can mean something else, I went on spring break with a
group called Girls Gone Wild, and for anybody who's not familiar with them,
essentially, it's this company based around sending cameramen to, you know,
spring break destinations or these sort of college keg parties. And these
guys--I mean, I saw them do it--they walk around with a hat that says Girls
Gone Wild or a t-shirt, and their cameras, and women just go up to them, young
women just go up to them, and--for free--flash their breasts or make out with
each other, basically put on a sort of amateur softcore porn show. And then,
you know, the footage is sold and these women never make a penny off it.

And when I would interview these girls and say, `OK, so you're not getting
paid; why'd you do this?' I heard several versions, you know, of the same
thing. One young woman said to me, `Well, you know, it's like a reflex.' And
another young woman said to me, `The only way I could see fem'--this is a girl
who had simulated masturbation for their cameras in a bar--she said, `Well the
only way I could see somebody not doing this is if she were considering a
career in politics.' Which I thought was pretty funny.

I mean, it struck me that there was just this sense that, `Of course this is
what a woman would do.' It was sort of part of the job of being female, was to
put on these kinds of shows. And of course, these young women aren't creating
this. I mean, they're mirroring back the culture they see around them.

And so, sure, it's great, hypothetically, that we're free to do this. But I
think when something becomes ubiquitous like this, when a trend becomes this
intense, it stops looking like an option and starts looking more like an
obligation to me.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Let me quote you from your book, "Female Chauvinist Pigs."
You write, you think this phenomenon isn't about liberation. You think it's
essentially commercial. And you say, "This isn't free love. Raunch culture
isn't about opening our minds to the possibilities and mysteries of sexuality,
it's about endlessly reiterating one particular and one particularly
commercial shorthand for sexiness." In what way do you see this phenomenon as
being commercial?

Ms. LEVY: Well, I mean, I think that there's this sense in which sexuality,
you know, like the most thrilling and complicated and mysterious thing that we
have--well, one of them--to play with as human. You know, we've sort of
reduced it down to, you know, implants, polyester underpants, Brazilian bikini
waxes, all these things that can be bought and sold. And it just, it strikes
me that once you make sex not about weird complicated things and you make it
about that stuff, then it's just another thing to buy and sell.

And I see that a lot, you know, in terms of--on television and reality shows,
for example, I mean, it's almost as if we can't summon the concept of sexy
without seeing those things. We need to see something that looks like Paris
Hilton to even conjure the concept of sexiness.

GROSS: You know, in the `60s during the feminist movement, there was a sense
that things like Playboy, it was part of this, like, male patriarchal culture,
that men were controlling culture and they were objectifying women for
commercial reasons, or for their own sexual pleasure. But you point out in
your book that a lot of the men's sex magazines and some of the more sexual TV
shows, which show, you know, women baring their breasts or whatever, are
actually edited or produced by women. And you interviewed several of those
women. What did you want to know? What did they tell you?

Ms. LEVY: Well, I wanted to know, you know, how they thought about this.
Whether it was something they were conflicted about, or, you know, whether it
was something they even thought about. And I think the answers really ranged,
but there was one woman who was a co-executive producer of "The Man Show," and
she said to me, `You know, women have always had to make men feel comfortable
with where we're at. And if you can show them that you're one of the guys,
it's good.' I mean, you know, it's essentially just another way of saying if
you can't beat `em, join `em. I mean, it's the same old idea.

And it makes sense. I mean, it's like that old saying of, you know, Ginger
Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels. I
think there's plenty of women, you know, editors of magazines or producers in
television shows, or any number of things, where they feel that in order to
not be seen as a prissy little woman, they better, you know, not object to any
level of raunch. They better make it seem like they're the first to embrace
it.

GROSS: You know, when you were mentioning spending the a with Girls Gone
Wild, and one of the things that the young women would do for this was to make
out with each other.

Ms. LEVY: Mm-hmm?

GROSS: Is part of this kind of raunch culture doing lesbian kind of things
not because you're a lesbian, but because it's cool or because it's a turn-on
for men?

Ms. LEVY: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, these high school kids in Oakland,
California, were telling me how the, you know, at the school dances, they're
always sort of making out with each other and giving the guys lap dances. I
mean, if I try to imagine that happening at my high school dance, like, I
mean, it's like, oh, god, we were so much more hung up, in some ways.

Although, I mean, you know, I don't think that what's happening--back to this
idea that this isn't free love--I don't think what's happening is that these
kids are just sort of like wildly sensuous and, you know, complete, you know,
just letting their passion sort of free. Again, I think it's more about
performance. And when I interviewed these kids, I mean, they weren't using
the lexicon of sort of smoldering pleasure. They were talking about shows.
They were talking about, `Well, I've seen this, you know, on so-and-so's
MySpace page.' or `I've seen this on MTV.' I mean, this is what you're
supposed to do.

And yeah, I absolutely think that, you know, that business of girls making
out--I mean, it's like a porn tableau. But I mean, all these kids, of course,
would be really fast to tell you, `Well I'm not bisexual or anything like
that.' I mean, there's still--I don't think it means that they're just
completely comfortable with that idea.

GROSS: So why did they tell you they do do it?

Ms. LEVY: They want to fit in. And, they--I mean, think about Paris Hilton.
You know, here's this young woman who was sort of just another boldface name
until this amateur sex tape came out, which is what rocketed her into, you
know, megastardom. I mean, it's such a contrast when you think about how
recently it was that the revelation that a woman had appeared in any kind of
pornography would've ruined her career. I mean, think about Vanessa Williams
having her crown taken away once they found out these pictures of her kissing
another woman. And she was able to make this comeback as a singer, but then
porn was something you had to make a comeback from. Now, porn is itself the
thing that makes you famous.

GROSS: My guest is Ariel Levy, author of the new book "Feminist Chauvinist
Pigs--Female Chauvinist Pigs," that is. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Ariel Levy, author of "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and
the Rise of Raunch Culture." It recently came out in paperback.

So what was your understanding of feminism when you were coming of age? And I
should mention here that you, as you describe in your book, your mother is a
Shiatsu masseuse who attended weekly women's consciousness-raising groups for
24 years and didn't own any makeup.

Ms. LEVY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And your father has been a consultant to Planned Parenthood, the
National Abortion Rights...

Ms. LEVY: National Abortion Rights Action League.

GROSS: Action League, yes, and NOW. So what kind of understanding of
feminism were you brought up with and what did it mean to you?

Ms. LEVY: I was very impassioned about it. I mean, I remember being, you
know, in like sixth grade or something and sort of standing on my soapbox and
giving shpiels about this stuff. I mean, I always very strongly about it, and
I always felt irked by the way I experienced this pressure for girls to be
quieter and to sort of, you know, take up less space than boys. I mean, as a
child, that, you know, as a very verbal, loud child, I always thought that
that was an outrageous thing that boys were sort of encouraged to talk a lot
and that people were always telling me to be quiet.

So I mean I was always very self-righteous about it, I think. And I mean, I
think to my--both my parents' credit, particularly to my dad's credit, I think
I had the great good fortune of having a father who really always pressured me
to be funny and pressured me to be smart and didn't ever talk about the way I
looked one way or the other. And I think that's a great thing, I think that's
a great gift for a dad to give his daughter.

GROSS: Now one thing you write in your book is that raunch culture feels the
most alien to aging hippies like my parents, but it's actually also a
repercussion of the forces they set in motion.

Ms. LEVY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: In what way do you see raunch culture as being a repercussion of `60s
hippie culture or `60s feminist culture?

Ms. LEVY: Well, I mean, I think on the most simplistic level, if you
take--if you sort of reduce, you know, the sexual liberation movement and the
women's liberation movement to their most commercial, sort of base level, you
can see traces of that in raunch culture. I mean, it's a perversion of what
those movements were supposed to stand for, but you can sort of see where they
have some history in that.

But I think in a more direct way, what you see young women doing is, you know,
nobody wants to turn into their mother, right? So there's this generational
rebellion where these young women, you know, whether their mothers were
radical feminists or evangelical Christians, either way, they know that by--on
some level--they know that by flashing their breasts for Girls Gone Wild,
they're infuriating their moms, and defining themselves in a very different
way.

GROSS: I'm going to quote you again. You write, "Many of the conflicts
between the women's liberation movement and the sexual revolution, and many of
the conflicts within the women's liberation movement remain unresolved. What
we are seeing today is the residue of that confusion." Would you elaborate on
that?

Ms. LEVY: Yes, of course. What most members of the women's liberation
movement have said to me, you know, is that they consider the last gasp of
radical feminism to have been the so-called porn wars in the `80s, which of
course posited so-called pro-sex feminists against anti-porn feminists. And
of course, everybody thought they were being pro-sex. You know, the anti-porn
feminists thought that by trying to rid the world of degrading images--what
they felt were degrading images of women, they were making room for more
liberated and satisfying, you know, sexual culture. And of course, the
pro-sex feminists thought that if feminism was about freedom, then women
should have the freedom to make pornography or appear in pornography.

And I think that, you know, nobody could ever resolve that. And I think that
we're still working on that. But what's been interesting to me, when I
interviewed women who call themselves pro-sex feminists, like for example the
feminist pornographer Candida Royale, you know, a lot of them said to me,
`It's one thing to be trying to make room for sort of different images of
female sexuality and giving women room for all this kind of experimentation,
but what you see with raunch culture, the sort of uniformity of it, the sort
of, the way that there's only one very rigid model of female sexuality that's
allowed to come out, this sort of lusty, busty exhibitionist with big fake
breasts and big blond hair and long fingernails, who's spinning around a pole,
that's not what they had in mind.'

GROSS: Well, like you said before, nobody wants to grow up to be their
mother; everybody wants to kind of...

Ms. LEVY: Right.

GROSS: ...separate and create her own identity. And I'm wondering if there
were things that turned you off about your mother's vision of what feminism
was, that you rebelled against.

Ms. LEVY: Well, you know, I don't know if it's generational rebellion or
just this sort of coincidence of personalities, but it's like vanity skipped a
generation in my family. No, it's true. My mother's mother, my grandmother,
was a beautician. And she loves jewelry and makeup and clothes and all the
rest of it, and my mother just is totally uninterested in all that stuff. I
think she thinks it's boring and shallow. And I love that stuff. I mean, it
just, you know, I'm very interested in fashion, and I'm a very sort of
traditionally feminine self-presentation. And I don't, you know, I don't know
what that's about. I don't know if that's a rebellion or just a sort of
glitch of personality.

GROSS: And...

Ms. LEVY: But it's certainly a difference between my mother and I.

GROSS: Did you ever go through a period of wanting to deny yourself that,
thinking that, you know, it was superficial?

Ms. LEVY: Well, absolutely. When I was in college, I mean, Wesleyan was
this quite radical place, and you're sort of challenging everything,
questioning everything. And like a lot of other college girls, I mean, I sort
of went through this period where I thought, `What am I shaving my legs for?
This is a ridiculous use of time.' And the thing is, it is a ridiculous use of
time, you know, and I think that, I mean, femininity--I mean, Susan Brown
Miller wrote a feminist classic, a fantastic book, called "Femininity,"
exploring, you know, the pleasures and absurdities of all these rituals. And
it's hard to know, you know, where to begin and where to end with this stuff.

I mean, to me, in my book and in my life, I mean, the distinction that I draw
is between the things that give you pleasure and the things that absolutely
don't. For example, cosmetic surgery is something--I wrote an article for
Vogue magazine a few years ago about women who had died having voluntary
cosmetic surgery, you know, facelifts, essentially. There were several women
who died a few years ago having facelifts.

I mean, to me it's just stunning, you know, the number of breast implants that
happen in this country has gone up 700 percent in the last 10 years. And I
think it's very saddening that people are willing to go through that much pain
and to risk their lives for an aesthetic. I think, you know, it's one thing
to wear a pair of shoes that hurt a little. It's another to put yourself in
actual physical danger--to me.

GROSS: What is your vision of feminism now? I imagine you'd describe it as
being somewhat different from your mother's vision of feminism.

Ms. LEVY: Well, you know, the thing is--I mean, I think that the word
itself, of course, has famously fallen out of favor with my generations and
the generations younger than I am. I'm 32. I don't think that's so
surprising or so problematic. You know, I mean, nobody's walking around
calling themselves yippies, anymore, either, you know. So, I mean, I just
think that the various names for revolutionary movements for social change
that were, you know, comfortable and popular in the `60s and `70s, you know,
that they're just not--they just don't fit necessarily now.

And I mean, I think that, you know, there's no such thing as a unified woman's
movement right now. I think it's fragmented, and I think people are doing
lots of important things. And I think that, you know, the ongoing struggle
for reproductive rights is crucial, and I think that--I mean, people are doing
so much important work, I just don't think it's got a sort of solid, unified
center.

GROSS: Ariel Levy is the author of "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the
Rise of Raunch Culture." It recently came out in paperback. Levy will be back
in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ariel Levy, author of
the book "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture." She
describes female chauvinist pigs as women who make sex objects of other women
and of themselves and see it as empowering to imitate porn stars and
strippers. She wonders why sexual stereotypes that feminists rejected are now
seen as liberating.

Do you see raunch culture in part as a reaction against political correctness?

Ms. LEVY: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. I mean, I think there was...

GROSS: What kind of political correctness do you feel like you were exposed
to and you understand a reaction to?

Ms. LEVY: Oh, gosh. Well, I mean, at Wesleyan, it was so insane. When I
was in school, I mean, it was the time, also, the early `90s, you know, people
were going wild with this stuff. And the place also. But I mean, I think, it
was like you had to trip over yourself to say anything because you had to
constantly be identifying your own particular location as a thinker or
speaker, so you know, if you're saying anything, you got to make sure you're
saying, `OK, but I'm a Jewish white woman from this economic bracket and,' you
know, on and on and on. I mean, that's another problem with the language. I
think that's one of the reasons people get prickly about saying, `Well, I'm a
feminist,' or `As a feminist, I think this, that or the other.' It's like,
that only tells you one thing. You also want to know 14 million other things
about the person to sort of identify their point of view.

And I think that, you know, as a reaction, as a rebellion, against that PC
tightness that was big in the late `80s and early `90s, there's this
freewheeling quality to raunch that's kind of like, `throw your hands up in
the air and shrug it all off' and just, you know, suddenly you don't have to
say "women," you can say "chick." You don't have to say "African American,"
you can say "black.' Or you can say things that're even, you know, less OK
than that. I mean, I think, you see that, you know, with the rise of like
hip-hop, too, you know, this just sort of like casting off of any idea of
political correctness.

So I mean I think that that's very attractive to a lot of people in their 30s
and 20s. And in the teens, I mean, they don't even--they have nothing to
react against. I think they never lived in a time when "bitches"and "hoes"
wasn't part of the lexicon.

GROSS: You know, I'm glad you brought up hip-hop. Is the phenomenon that you
were talking about, do you see that as a white phenomenon, or...

Ms. LEVY: No.

GROSS: ...do you--mm-hmm?

Ms. LEVY: No, I don't. I mean, I think--you know, all you have to do is
like watch almost any hip-hop video and, you know, just see like a phalanx of
young women who're almost naked with breast implants, you know, using their
body parts to like wax the car while a rapper goes at it and does his thing in
front of them. I mean, for the man, it's just, it's the artist is the
speaker, and so much more often than not the women are sort of hood ornaments.
I mean, that's completely the raunch culture aesthetic and ethos.

GROSS: Do you think that there will soon be a new generation of teenagers and
young women who react against raunch culture, just as, I mean, right before
raunch culture, there was so much like grunge culture...

Ms. LEVY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...I mean, among teenagers, just like wearing baggy flannel shirts and
hooded sweatshirts and really covering themselves up.

Ms. LEVY: Well, you know, I don't know. I'm always surprised by the
direction fashion goes in. But I do want to point out again this split
between appearance and behavior. I think there's still a lot of emphasis on
purity and virginity, you know, and some of the early stars of raunch culture,
for example, were Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears. And when they first
became popular, it was like, you know, they were half-naked, they were
our--these national pastimes was just drooling over these girls--but they had
to tell us constantly in their music that sex was something they sang about,
not something they engaged in. I mean, I still think that there's this real
pressure to be a virgin even while you look like a whore. It's like we want
all our sort of iconic female roles in one.

And I think, you know, not unrelated is the fact that we keep pumping billions
of dollars into abstinence-only education, which tells these young people,
essentially, `Just say no to sex until you're married.' And we do that despite
the fact that there's never been a single study to show that this works, and,
of course, the United States has woefully high levels of, you know, teen
pregnancy and STDs spread.

So I think it's like, there's an actual anxiety about sexuality paired with a
sort of endless appetite for hotness.

GROSS: So you see the culture heading in two directions, two opposite
directions--or seemingly opposite directions--at the same time. Is there any
way of reconciling that?

Ms. LEVY: Well, I mean, I just think that, if young people are going to
exist in this, the only world that there is, you know, I think that they need
to be armed with more information than the concept "just say no," which is
what they're taught in abstinence-only education classes. And I think it's
just so bizarre that we keep pumping money into those programs when there's
never been a single study to show that they work, and when, you know, the
United States has much, much worse rates of teen pregnancy and teen STDs than
other nations of comparable privilege.

GROSS: Well, Ariel Levy, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. LEVY: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Ariel Levy is the author of "Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the
Rise of Raunch Culture." It recently came out in paperback.

Coming up, a great band from the `80s and early `90s reunites for a tour. We
talk with Phillip Johnston and Joel Forrester of The Microscopic Septet. We
play a lot of their music on our show. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Joel Forrester and Phillip Johnston of the Microscopic
Septet, a jazz septet reuniting and reissuing their old albums,
on their music and composing the FRESH AIR theme
(Soundbite of FRESH AIR theme song)

TERRY GROSS, host:

You probably recognize this as the theme music that we always use to begin our
show. We're playing it here to introduce our next guests. When we needed a
new theme about 15 years ago, we went to a band that we loved, the Microscopic
Septet. They never had a lot of commercial success, but they had a devoted
following. Back in 1988, the music critic Francis Davis wrote, "posterity is
going to remember the Microscopic Septet as one of the best bands of the
1980s."

Not long after our theme was recorded, the Micros broke up. But the good news
is they've gotten back together for a series of reunion concerts in several
cities, including New York and Philadelphia, and they've just reissued all
four of their albums on two double CDs. "Seven Men in Neckties" and
"Surrealistic Swing." My guests are the band's co-founders and main composers,
soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston and pianist Joel Forrester. The Micros
not only play our theme music, we also feature a lot of their recordings in
between segments. Here's one that regular FRESH AIR listeners will recognize,
Joel Forrester's "Off Color."

(Soundbite of "Off Color")

GROSS: Phillip Johnston, Joel Forrester, welcome back to FRESH AIR and
congratulations on these reunion concerts and the reissue CDs. Thanks for
being here.

Mr. JOEL FORRESTER: Thank you, Terry, it's great to be here.

Mr. PHILLIP JOHNSTON: Boy, isn't it?

GROSS: Let's go back to kind of the beginning for a second and talk about how
you saw the band and what you thought its place was in jazz in the `80s, like
maybe you could describe how you, the leaders of the band, envisioned the
sound.

Mr. JOHNSTON: I think the basic reasons for starting the band were twofold.
One, I wanted to do something with my own music that inculcated the influences
of the different types of music that I was enthusiastic about, because
whatever type of music I was playing, I always wanted to--that I was listening
to and enjoying, I always wanted to play it. So I was really into jazz from
the `20s and `30s, I was really into free jazz, I was really into stuff like
Charles Mingus and Steven Lacy and Herbie Nichols and Duke Ellington, very
much an influence. The John Kirby Sextet, people like that. So I wanted to
put those--and also the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton--I wanted to
put all those things together, because that's what was going on in my head.
And then, there was a bunch of great musicians who I was playing with in
different bands, and I thought, `Wouldn't it be great for us all to do
something together?'

GROSS: Joel, what would you want to add to that about the sound of the
Micros?

Mr. FORRESTER: Well, I would say that the sound comes from the odd
personalities of the people involved, Terry. And I love the fact that this
seemed to be a band which had an ongoing commitment to playing new music on a
regular basis. We rehearsed like mad and when we played gigs, we'd choose
those gigs where we could play three sets, play long, long, into the night,
and I think our listeners got caught up in the fact that we were doing
something that was just a little bit different.

GROSS: One of the things that Micros fans like myself really love about the
band is that you always have a sense of humor in the music. It's just like
fun and witty. And did the humor ever get you into trouble, though, at the
same time?

Mr. JOHNSTON: Well, I think some people had a problem with it. I remember,
there's an episode in particular where we played at the JVC Jazz Festival, and
one reviewer wrote about us that while he admired the music from a technical
point of view and a musical point of view, the humor he found very offputting,
because, he said, he didn't understand whether we were making fun of ourselves
or the music or our audience, to which I enthusiastically respond, `all
three.'

For some reason, people--especially people in the press--found that to be kind
of puzzling, but what we were doing was partially reacting against the
seriousness and the self-importance that jazz had been acquiring as it moved
from being a popular music to an art music. That was part of its growing
form. But for us, coming up in the generation in the `60s and early `70s that
we did, we rejected that. It was part of, I think, everything that was going
on.

And also, I think there's the influence--for me, at least--of the music that I
loved so much, the jazz of the `20s and `30s, people like Don Redman, I mean,
that music was very humorous as well as having many other aspects that I
related to: mystery and drama and so on. And then music like the Art
Ensemble of Chicago also expressed a lot of humor. So putting those together,
those were just things that I related to about it.

Mr. FORRESTER: But you know, Phillip, you and I have both become serious and
self-important now, so...

Mr. JOHNSTON: Exactly.

Mr. FORRESTER: ...it should be easy for us to be ridiculous once again.

Mr. JOHNSTON: Well, there was that. And then it's just the particular
personalities of the people in the band. I mean, enough cannot be said about
the qualities of individuality that each unique musician in the Microscopic
Septet brought to the music. And I remember reading about the Ellington reed
section, that one of the things about it that was different about it from all
the other bands was that everybody had a very distinct style of playing the
saxophone; they had different vibrato and so on. And the other bands at the
time tried to play more similar to get a blend, but the Ellington band, they
just played the way they played. Well, in the Microscopic Septet, you can't
find people who play more differently than each other.

GROSS: I would like to ask you each to choose a track that you're kind of
happy to hear again and you're glad is on CD. And that you'd like to play for
us. So Joel, let's start with you.

Mr. FORRESTER: I guess I would choose "Second Avenue" as the pick I'd like
to hear.

GROSS: And tell me why.

Mr. FORRESTER: Well, "Second Avenue" actually is a tune from my earliest
days in New York, in the early `70s. If such a thing is possible, before
Phillip Johnston and I met. And it's probably one of the first tunes that he
and I got together, just playing as a duo. It sums up a certain feeling about
a street that our lives sort of clustered around for many years.

GROSS: OK, so this is "Second Avenue," and this is from the "Live in Concert"
CD on the new Microscopic Septet reissue, "Seven Men in Neckties."

(Soundbite of "Second Avenue")

GROSS: That's the Microscopic Septet. The track is called "Second Avenue."
It was composed by Joel Forrester. And along with Joel in the studio is
Phillip Johnston of the Microscopic Septet.

And Phillip, now I'm going to ask you to choose something and tell us why
you're choosing it.

Mr. JOHNSTON: Well, I would choose "Chinese Twilight Zone," because it's a
tune--I guess at that age, I really had a tremendous urgency and compulsion to
put everything that I knew into a tune, and "Chinese Twilight Zone" is a tune
that's just crammed full of different stuff, and I just wanted to show how,
inside me, all the different types of music connected. And I had to just
shove it all into one tune.

As I got older, I think I started separating things out and concentrating on a
certain idea for a tune, for example, and developing it further. I learned
more and development and studying composition further, but at that time of
life, like many people in their 20s, I just wanted to tell people everything
that I knew and loved and was excited about.

GROSS: So what have you crammed into this?

Mr. JOHNSTON: Well, you name it; it's got everything but the kitchen sink.
It's got swing, it's got Latin, it's got rock and roll, it's got an element of
minimalism, cartoon music, gee, I can't even remember what all. Just a lot of
stuff. It changes constantly through the whole tune and keeps going to
different places.

GROSS: So this is "Chinese Twilight Zone," composed by Phillip Johnston, from
the new Microscopic Septet reissue, "Seven Men in Neckties."

(Soundbite of "Chinese Twilight Zone")

GROSS: That's Phillip Johnston's composition "Chinese Twilight Zone" from the
new Microscopic Septet double reissue, which is called "Seven Men in
Neckties." And the track we just heard was originally on the first Micros
album, which was called "Take the Z Train."

Phillip, you worked on putting this CD reissue together. What was it like for
you to re-immerse yourself in your earliest recorded music?

Mr. JOHNSTON: Well, the biggest difficulty about it was just remembering
things and finding materials. Like, I think, most musicians, I never listen
to my own records unless I'm forced to for some reason. And to go back 20, 25
years and listen to stuff I hadn't thought about, it seems like it's by
somebody else, in a way, because my music has gone to a very different place
since that time. But I was happy to hear I still liked it. It just seemed
very far away from what I do now.

GROSS: My guests are Phillip Johnston and Joel Forrester of the Microscopic
Septet. They're reuniting for a concert tour and have reissued their albums
on CD. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guests are Joel Forrester and Phillip Johnston of the Microscopic
Septet. The Micros are reuniting for a concert tour and have reissued their
albums on CD.

You know, as our listeners, I think, know, the Microscopic Septet plays the
FRESH AIR theme, and Joel, you composed the theme. And every so often,
somebody comes up to me and says, `I could swear that you used to play a major
version, you know, a version of the theme but in a major key instead of the
customary minor key that we hear the theme in.' And of course they're right,
there was a major key version of the key, too. Joel, you'd written two
versions. Do you want to give us your version of the story of why there were
two versions of the FRESH AIR theme?

Mr. FORRESTER: My version of the story, Terry, is that it's actually down to
you that we played two versions. Now isn't that true?

GROSS: That's true.

Mr. FORRESTER: Yes. You know, I mean, look what credit we're due, you know?
I remember submitting to you a piece of very dense boogie-woogie and calling
it "Fresh Air." And your telling me that no one could possibly read anything
or say anything on top of it. So it was back to the drawing board. What I
don't recall is whether I composed the so-called hard boiled version or the
happy version first. Do you remember?

GROSS: I'm pretty sure it was the hard boiled version first, the minor key
version.

Mr. FORRESTER: Oh, OK.

GROSS: And I remember really loving the theme, and wondering at that point if
it sounded almost too much like the theme for a detective series.

Mr. FORRESTER: Yes. Too insistent, too much insinuation, mm-hmm.

Mr. JOHNSTON: And that wasn't appropriate?

GROSS: Well, it probably was appropriate, but anyway, so...

Mr. JOHNSTON: Terry Gross, private eye.

GROSS: Yeah, exactly. So you wrote a major key version and called it the
happy twin. And, in fact, why don't we just play it now?

(Soundbite of FRESH AIR theme)

GROSS: Well, I have to say, thank you, Joel, for writing the happy twin
version of the theme, but I've always really liked the hard boiled version,
which is the one that we use.

Mr. JOHNSTON: Then there's many other versions that maybe the listeners
haven't heard: the ambivalent twin, the self-deprecating twin.

Mr. FORRESTER: Phillip's right about all that, of course.

GROSS: And just in terms of the history of our theme, you know, we
wanted--the reason why we asked you guys to do the theme in the first place
was because--well, Phillip, like you were saying, you know, the band combines
like the fun and the concise solos of jazz from the `20s and `30s with the
more adventurous harmonies of contemporary jazz.

Mr. JOHNSTON: She puts it better than we have.

Mr. FORRESTER: True.

GROSS: That's exactly what we wanted for the theme. So we got a theme from
you that really was kind of fun and lively. And what happened? As soon as we
were about to debut the theme, the Gulf War started, the first Gulf War, in
`91. And suddenly, like the theme seemed all wrong for what was happening in
the world and what we were covering on the show. So we actually held off on
debuting that FRESH AIR theme and played, instead, a different musical
interlude that, Joel, you had written as music to be played in between
interviews on the show. But it had a certain gravity to it that seemed
appropriate as a theme--and, Phillip, that featured you on soprano saxophone.

Mr. FORRESTER: Well, you know, Terry, that composition was scored like a
hymn tune for the four saxes, sort of like the way Monk scored "Abide With Me"
for the horns in an old Riverside LP. What we had were the four saxes playing
this tune as if it were sort of a hymn tune with Dickie Dworkin, our drummer,
playing military-style drums behind it.

GROSS: Let me actually play that Gulf War theme, so to speak, which is
actually included on the second of the two Microscopic Septet reissues. And
the second one is called "Surrealistic Swing."

(Soundbite of FRESH AIR Gulf War theme)

GROSS: That is the so-called FRESH AIR Gulf War theme, and it's included on
the Microscopic Septet's second-of-two reissues called "Surrealistic Swing."

I'd like to end with another track from the Micros' reissue. And, Phillip,
this is a piece that you wrote called "A Strange Thought Entered My Head."
Would you say something about it for us?

Mr. FORRESTER: It's another tune which has crammed into it everything I know
and goes to a lot of different places. And I think that was basically,
probably, the number one aspect of my writing at the time. I was trying to
explicate the connections that I was making between different things, which
seemed to me amazing. And I just wanted to tell everybody, `Hey, Kyoto music
is the same as blues guitar. Delta blues and Eastern European music was the
same as `20s jazz,' that there was a connection between all these things. And
I wanted to put that into my music and express my discovery of it.

GROSS: Well thank you both again for being with us, and congratulations on
the reunion.

Mr. FORRESTER: Thank you, Terry. Thanks for having us.

Mr. JOHNSTON: Mm.

GROSS: Phillip Johnston and Joel Forrester are reuniting with the five other
members of the Microscopic Septet for a series of reunion concerts. Their
albums have just been reissued on two double CDs, "Men in Neckties" and
"Surrealistic Swing." I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Biography Traces Political Mistakes And Personal Scars That Shaped Joe Biden

As a young man, Joe Biden was fixated on a singular goal: "On his first date with his future wife, he told her mother that he wanted to grow up to be president," New Yorker writer Evan Osnos says. Osnos writes about the Democratic presidential candidate in his new book, Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now.

43:04

Marcus Samuelsson: Erasing Black Culinary History Ignores 'The Soul Of American Food'

The James Beard award-winning chef says his flagship restaurant, Red Rooster, became his "haven" during the height of pandemic. Working with José Andrés' World Central Kitchen organization, Samuelsson converted the restaurant to a community kitchen. Over the course of six months, Red Rooster served more than 200,000 meals to first responders and others in need. he talks about that and his new book.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue