Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Gibson semiotics

I had the dubious good fortune to take three girls under twelve (my daughters and a friend) to see the "Jonas Brothers 3D Concert Experience" movie the other day. Oddly, the cinema was entirely empty except for us, and I was spared the high-volume audience participation (screaming) that I'd been warned about. So I took the opportunity to ruminate on the interplay of gender and stringed instruments in this closely choreographed pop event.

That pop and rock performance floats on turbid undercurrents of sexuality goes without saying. This once had the capacity to shock, in the days of Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other pioneers, but hardly merits mention today. More so than with the girl singers in its stable, Disney has managed to market the Jonas Brothers as objects of teen desire in a culturally safe and no doubt commercially lucrative way. The boys flee hordes of screaming fans through Manhattan (in an obviously set-up chase scene inspired by A Hard Day's Night); a hand-held POV camera takes us through their hotel suite, visiting their tousled beds one by one as bodyguard "Big Rob" shakes them awake; in the "candid" dressing room scene, they strip their shirts off sweaty, hairless chests for the 3D camera they "didn't notice" was there; they bump and grind and posture with innumerable guitars as rockers always have--guitars being, of course, simultaneously male and female symbols. They run, prance, leap, back-flip and slide along a catwalk inches above the waving arms of thousands of lucky front row fans, like lean but juicy fish teasing the grasping tentacles of a giant, hungry anemone. And it's no big deal: sitting there as a Dad with my daughters, none of this bothered me. The only creepy moment comes when the boys exchange the guitars and mike stand they spend most of the movie wrangling for fire hoses with baroque, sci-fiesque nozzels: and spray down the audience with foam--I kid you not. The mass of panting girls screams in delight, gazing adoringly up at the idols who just hosed them, their faces splattered with white.

So sex and gender are old hat with this kind of thing. Still, a couple aspects of the show caught my attention. As if the adoration of thousands of girl fans is not enough, the Jo-Bros on their Burning Up tour are backed by a large string section cum cheering squad composed entirely of young women, divided in two equal halves on risers overlooking the stage. They dress kind of like caterers first, in black and white with bow-ties; later in the show they wear red dresses. I was reminded of the iconic girls in Robert Palmer's Addicted to Love (1985): the same juxtaposition of male singers against female back-up musicians; the same play of black, white and red. Here, though, the female backdrop consists of violinists, violists and celloists (unlike the Palmer girls, they really can play--though they spend most of the show leading the audience clap-along). The back-up rock band itself (guitar, drums, keyboard and bass) is composed of somewhat older guys. But the designers of this extravaganza saw fit to cast girls in the supporting role behind the orchestral instruments.

I noted that the Jonas boys play many different guitars in the course of the show--sometimes changing guitars in the middle of songs, hurling one they were done with at a waiting roady and grabbing up a fresh one, like a pony-express rider changing steeds in mid-gallop. Though the boys can and do play a full complement of bar chords and the odd solo, we should consider their guitars mainly as costume ornaments and props (their playing is way down in the mix). Nothing is left to chance in this show. I lost track who was playing what, but one or another of brothers Nick and Kevin play a green Gibson SG, a red SG, a (Gibson) Epiphone semi-hollow-body, an off-white (Gibson) Les Paul, a spangly gold Les Paul and a spangly green Les Paul. For acoustics they play Gibson Hummingbirds, which are not seen much these days outside of country music circles. Back home after the movie, I pondered what this all could mean. I was really on a roll, happily ruminating on the semiotics of Gibsons (wholesome, rocking but not subversive, with fat necks perfectly sized for fingers wearing purity rings?) versus the absent Fenders (edgy, biting, lithe and suggestively curved, primed for Hendrix-style ignition--a real "burning up"?), not to mention the possible phalanxes of gnarly Japanese custom axes--when my friend Jed brought me back down to earth with a quick Google search. The Jo-bros have a contract with Gibson. Product placement, not semiotics or even considerations of timbre, apparently, explains their choice of guitar brand.

So my search for chordophonic meaning in the Jonas Brothers is probably all over-reach--the worst kind of academic wanking. Or is it? The same friend, himself a mean banjo-picker, offered the following in consolation:

"I'm sorry to have trivialized your deconstruction of the Jonas Brothers' guitars with my literal minded yes-or-no cold-blooded reading of the contract situation. Or course you are right that the implications that you noted are indeed part of the subtext of the Jonas Brothers' performance, all there to be read by the trained eye. Obviously the film represents a complex manifestation of the concept of "kawaii" 可愛いas originating in East Asian popular entertainment and filtered through the Westerner's lens of cultural commodification. As the Jonas brothers are (gui)tarred and feathered with the brand of Disney, the viewer has no choice but to empathize with their plight as a sacrificial lambs, bathing the faithful in their pure-white foamy blood, expiating their forbidden sexual desires as they take upon themselves both the credit and the blame for the hidden loss of innocence that Disney has always represented in the American imagination."