Substituteby Brandon Edmonds / 15.08.2013
OMFG pick that up, Betty! The picnic scene in Mad Men is shocking because unless we’re at the annual “Gathering of the Juggalos”, we would never do that. We would never dump our trash on the grass without a twinge of anxiety. Ecological awareness is far too entrenched by now, even if that awareness is yet to translate into concerted mass action to radically challenge business as usual. We can always fight our way onto Elysium when this shitpile crumbles into space dust from reckless centuries of overproduction.
The picnic scene shows us how deeply our cultural attitudes are ingrained and how we only tend to notice them when they’re challenged. The same historicizing alienation affect can occur when you watch the OC, whippersnappers. Death Cab was a buzz band!? Rich people in republican Orange County actually opened their homes to moody working class boys? Oh wait Ryan was white, unlike Trayvon Martin, who would have been arrested (or worse) as soon as his Nikes hit the Cohen’s lawn. Am I pandering, shamelessly, to this site’s black readership? You try getting a job in this economy. Moving on dot org.
Popular culture, amongst other things, is how we situate ourselves historically. It provides endless material for epochal differentiation, the satisfying opportunity to go that’s not us, we’re better now. “Internet culture” (urgh) keeps speeding up the time span of that differentiation – so last month, in popular culture, can seem like the Dark Ages, making it hard to know what to retain or what needs to be returned to and given its due.
That’s why we bothered to notice hipsters in the first place, they were responding to a hankering for the authentic (that being whatever outlasts cultural cycles: Hendrix, the little black dress, “North by Northwest” – hey, make your own list kids), which we all feel sometimes. What lasts, what matters, what should we trash or treasure? That (bloggy) negotiation is popular culture.
Which begs the question: do we trash or treasure “Substitute”?
Clout should be post-feminist icons. Here was a successful 70s all-girl South African soft rock band with a string of European hits that mostly resisted de rigueur disco flatulence. Their debut, released in 1977, a solid rearrangement of an old Righteous Brothers song, “Substitute”, was number one in France, Germany, Australia and many other countries with much higher life expectancies than ours. It made a shit ton of money. Only “You’re the One that I want” (oohoohooh) from the “Grease” soundtrack kept it from “topping the British charts”.
So Clout should be our Runaways, with a biopic, reunion tour and new material on the way but for two ruinous things: those pesky apartheid-era sanctions and the retrograde gender sentiments of “Substitute” – the opposite of “girl power”. Industry rumours that male session musicians actually played the instruments on the recording (for R34 each) aren’t helping the legacy any or that the original idea and production all came from the bands’ manager, a dude. So far so glaring lack of female agency!
Here’s lead singer, Cindy Alter, admitting that these sisters didn’t exactly do it for themselves, business-wise: “It became a bit of a puppet show with the grandmaster puppeteer (their manager) raking in all the money and the poor little puppets getting put in the box at the end of the day…we didn’t read the fine print.”
Sanctions meant the band couldn’t expand to conquer territory and airplay globally. Options were understandably closed to cultural product from a demented, racially murderous regime. Clout had to take it on the chin and the band would last only 4 years, unraveling in 1981, faced with the diminishing returns of the local market. Which is fine because…just listen to those lyrics.
It’s as if Andrea Dworkin never lived. As if making him happy and being by his side is the summit of female existence. It’s as if Betty Draper was throwing that trash right in your face.
The woman in the song would only ever burn her bra to warm the toes of the guy she’s over-serenading. She abjectly discounts herself, like a beaten down Victorian waif without social power, just to be in the running for this guy’s second-hand love. In return for his “dedication” (the very least we might expect from serious romantic partners), she’ll give him “everything in creation”. Everything: even seahorses and a new digital camera? Wow. Hate yourself much.
Provided his original girlfriend doesn’t re-emerge, of course, which then all bets are off and the singer, this wretch, will slink off to a life of stalking, etsy and dildoes. “I’ll be your substitute whenever you want me / I’ll be your substitute whenever you need me”. Are you fucking crazy right now? That is the sound of Shulamith Firestone rolling in her grave.
It’s just, what a great pop song. That insinuating bass plodding through it like raindrops spattering a trampoline, the creamy pre-Autotune harmonies, and cymbal taps; it’s good enough to go on the “Dazed & Confused” soundtrack which is star-studded with classic 70s stompers.
What’s painfully missing to our ears is the fuck off swagger and confidence of Icona Pop’s “I love it” – girls whose whole lives are about outrunning the claws of self-denying relationship bullshit Clout’s “Substitute” advocates. “I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs”. That’s how women want to deal with men today. They’re sick of being substitutes for other women in his life, substitutes for his crushed dreams, his unacknowledged failures and rage, his mommy issues, his daddy issues, his issues period.
Treasure or trash “Substitute”? I say throw it away like Betty.