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Of Overplay and Cabaret

Oops, I did it again…

So, not too long ago, in the middle of a very enjoyable show, I immediately turned around and walked out of the room.

I had a spontaneous knee-jerk reaction: I heard the first few strands of Hey Big Spender wafting over the speakers – and I fucking bolted.

We all have our own little pet peeves when it comes to performances; and this one is mine. Quite frankly, I’d rather be stabbed in the eye repeatedly with a spork than hear that damn song one more time.

Over the past five years or so, the issue of “burlesque overplay” has arisen in the community – there are several classics that have been done to death, to the point where they may now illicit an immediate negative reaction from experienced burlesque audiences (and fellow performers).

I’ve been kicking around this topic for ages but was unsure of how to word it, lest I piss off a whole lot of people; no one wants to feel that her act or song choice is under attack. But I strongly feel this issue should be discussed openly; if we as artists can’t critique our own performance community, then where does that leave room for growth?

I decided to conduct an informal, unscientific poll via Twitter and Facebook: What burlesque songs have been beaten to death?

After tallying the results, here are the top 5 worst offenders:

Mein Herr (this was #1 with a bullet!)
Feeling Good
(all versions, but Michael Buble’s earned special merit)
I Put a Spell on You
Hey Big Spender

Also earning numerous mentions:

Santa Baby
Whatever Lola Wants
Why Don’t You Do Right
Bumps & Grinds
Harlem Nocturne
Night Train

And, I’ll add my personal list: any selections from either the Verve Beat of Burlesque and the Take It Off: Striptease Classics compilations.

Now, before you get all huffy because you do a routine to one of the above mentioned: I personally have performed to several of these songs – hell, my very first burlesque act ever was to The Stripper and it just doesn’t get much more cliché than that, eh?

The majority of the respondents to my poll had also performed to one or more of these tunes – and you’d probably be hard pressed to find any modern performer who hasn’t shimmied to at least one of the above.

These aren’t bad songs – they are all fantastic, compelling pieces of music, which is why they came to be so overdone in the first place.

(Except Santa Baby. That song is just….NO.)

Moving on: In 1997, the burlesque revival was just a baby; and the idea of a tattooed pink-haired pinup resurrecting Mein Herr in a dirty rock ‘n’ roll nightclub was still a novel new concept.

Now? Not so much.

As neo-burlesque has grown by leaps and bounds, these songs have made their way onto stages so many times that the experienced burlesque audience has simply grown weary of them; to borrow an old radio term, we’ve played them until the grooves wore out.

Harlem Nocturne and Night Train are both jazz classics; they are songs that have been covered and reworked time and time again for decades, because the musicians use the basic framework of the song as a platform for their own musical improvisation.

The point of a jazz standard, however, is that you need to make it your own – and it’s the many different influxes, nuances, and new additions that make it so interesting to listen to over and over again.

And frankly, I’m just not seeing enough of a variation to make some of these ol’ burlesque standards interesting anymore.

There are many exceptions, of course: performer Delilah of San Francisco said, “I think if one is clever, one can breathe new life into a groaner. It’s nice to see a surprising act to an overdone song.”

Some notable acts that earned special mention: Venus DeMille as a small-pox afflicted Pocahontas doing Fever, and The Von Foxies‘ rendition of Leave Your Hat On as Shriners, complete with fez pasties. Adding a new, comedic or ironic element turns a classic on its head. Bullwhips, deft aerial artistry, fake blood and gore – I’ve seen all of the above save an overused song.

But the general consensus seemed to be: if you pick a well-worn classic, you are automatically stacking the deck against yourself, so to speak. Right off the bat, you have an obstacle to overcome before the first article of clothing has even hit the stage.

“I’ve seen great numbers to all of the songs mentioned,” said Heidi von Haught of the Von Foxies. “It’s just that you have to blow me away to get me over the ‘fuck me, not this song again’ reaction.”

“I like the old standards, the bump and grinds, the Harlem Nocturnes,” said Sydni Deveraux of Seattle. “However, many performers hope that those songs will carry them through, when in actuality, if they aren’t a strong performer, it will hinder them, being compared to other acts that have used the same song. If it’s an overused song, I can only hope to baby sparkly Jesus that they are an entertaining performer.”

“Sometimes,” said Deveraux, “no matter how hard you try, you end up dancing to Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody but, in the words of RuPaul, you better WORK.

That sentiment is echoed by the original Mr. Exotic World, Tigger!, who feels performers should avoid picking a song that’s already been thoroughly branded by those who came before them.

“That’s a serious impediment to their self-expression, which is a big part of their damn job,” Tigger! said.

However, Deveraux adds: “If you’re a strong performer you could strip in silence and I’d be down to watch you.”

Los Angeles teacher and producer Penny Starr Jr, who has a “strict no Fosse policy” for her burlesque students, goes the extra mile of encouraging them to explore jazz tunes that are similar in style but not so overworked.

I will freely admit to my own strong personal bias on this issue; my father is a jazz DJ and historian, and I grew up on a steady diet of jazz.

I personally would love to see more burlesque performers exploring the world of jazz further: there is SO much amazing music out there, both classic and modern interpretations – and honestly, it really makes an act for me when I see a performer pulling out all of the stops to a piece of music that I’ve never heard before (both new and old!)

Why not check out Pandora, type in one of the classics, and see what pops up? Who knows what might turn up? You just might fall in love with a tune, and completely wow your audience when you present them with a compelling piece and and introduce them to a “new to them” song.

The bottom line is: if you are putting long and hard hours into your choreography and costume, you are only shortchanging yourself if you don’t apply the same amount of effort towards your musical choices.

–Sparkly Devil, Blood, Sweat & Glitter, 12.03.10

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