I hadn’t had a holiday for a year, so after having finished a big research project at the end of June, I eagerly seized a friend’s invitation to go to Sydney for a few days. On our itinerary was seeing Hairspray, a musical my friend is extremely fond of in all its incarnations, but one I hadn’t previously heard much of.
So, on a cold and windswept Saturday night, we ventured out to Star City. And had our hearts well and truly warmed!
My purpose isn’t to write a review of the show. Suffice it to say that it’s wonderful, and you should see it if you have the chance.
What interests me in this post is the cultural politics of Hairspray.
One of its marketing themes, and points of identification, is with 60s nostalgia. That nostalgia (as with all such imaginary clusters of memories) is by necessity a collective re-imagining of what the 60s ‘meant’, whether or not we were around to form our own judgements.
Hairspray, though, is set – deliberately – at a point of change. The scene in Baltimore in June 1962 is one of transformation: of the evolution, or better the revolution, through which the 50s melt into the 60s, with the civil rights struggle as the crucible.
Tracey Turnblad’s teenage desire to dance, and to audition for the Corny Collins show, sets in motion a series of events which sees a slice of the pop cultural scene integrated, accompanied by the full panoply of corrupt politicians, corporate machinations, arrests, protests and conflict.
It’s clever stuff, and immensely enjoyable. It’s also spot on in honing in on how change is driven by an upheaval in everyday life, and social and cultural relations – the quotidian as well as the world-historical. As Emma Goldman famously said, “if I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution”.
Part of the nostalgia, no doubt, is for an era when social change seemed both straightforward and possible.
The stakes on the Hairspray stage are simple: justice figured as equality. And revolution as pushing open a door that’s already ajar.
What’s intriguing about the transposition of the Hairspray story to the Australian context is the way the show appears; the way the colour lines are written on the Antipodean actors’ bodies.
In American productions, one presumes, Little Inez, Motormouth Maybelle, Seaweed J. Stubbs and the aspiring dancers are black – African-American. Just as in Baltimore 1962, it’s a binary racial politics, resolving itself into a fantasy of unity at the end. No doubt, in its American setting, all sorts of images of reconciliation, the intent to recover purpose and clarity in dealing with racial politics, anticipations of Obama’s rhetoric, and much much more could be read into the phantasmatic politics of the Hairspray world.
In Australia, the black characters are played by actors variously of Latin American, Pacific Islander, Indian and African heritage. While the white power structure still presents itself as a unity, the other side of the racial dichotomy is in fact a multiplicity. And it’s a multiplicity (and this, for me, was one source of joy) that looks like what we see on the streets of our CBDs, a visual (and all singing and dancing!) representation of how our country actually increasingly *is*, one that’s all too rare.
But, of course, that raises the thornier issue of how to meld all into one, or whether that is at all desirable.
If it’s better to see globalisation and the post-colonial world as producers of a dichotomy between homogenisation and hybridity than as a one way ‘Westernisation’ (and even if you don’t like seeing it that way, it’s a fact), then you have to also confront the forces which mesh everything together. In Theodor Adorno‘s terms, the processes of societalisation, the means by which the plural and the contingent start to become one.
Like many other things, that can either be a positive or a negative. Hairspray represents its final moment of celebration as mediated by love (Amor Vincit Omnia!) on one hand, and commerce on the other. Harriman F. Spritzer, Corny Collins’ sponsor, comes to realise that integration is good for business.
So what we have is a very liberal narrative of racial politics – with its antecedents stretching back at least as far as Adam Smith and other Enlightenment figures’ celebration of the civilising and pacifying power of truck, trade, and interchange. It’s pretty much how Paul Keating used to justify multiculturalism, and in the clipped coin of today’s debate, how the big business side of the ‘immigration debate’ does its thing.
On the other hand, we might be seeing something like Gudrun Axeli-Knapp’s perception of societalisation – “the increasingly irrational dominance of the general over the particular”. That is to say, a homogenisation of love and the dollar mediating equality, and incorporating difference ever more cleverly and insidiously into one cultural and social field. The culture of capitalism demands that everything be the same, even if the colour palette becomes more diverse.
There is no doubt that in addition to the projection of political power, globalisation entails a mixing of populations, driven both by the redistribution of labour around the world and by a partial equalisation of hierarchy, where traditional and nationally bound attributes of status give way to the liquid equality of wealth.
Social relations are just as important, we must remember. In negotiating the everyday, in forming and sustaining intimate unions, in sharing joy and hope, we become the subjects of our own stories, not just the ones commerce and cultural appropriation write us into.
But, and this is one of the things I liked about thinking about the cultural politics of Hairspray, the actuality of the dancing subjects on the stage suggests something real that subverts the narrative, and maybe, just maybe, acts as a harbinger of a *different* form of *equality*.
In a very real way, that form of equality in difference may have already appeared on the historical horizon.
One thing, though, is for certain: it’s not as simple as the re-imagined 60s might suggest. On the other hand, we might be blind to think that change hasn’t already happened. It’s awaiting its moment for someone to dance the new tune into existence. And that change may surface in our imaginations through dancing rather than through marching in the streets.