BVB: Themes in Burlesque
“I was thinking of doing a [insert your own burlesque cliché] act…”
Over the past year I’ve noticed an increase in the number of emails I receive from performers who are anxious that their idea for a new act is so similar to an act in my repertoire that I, or other seasoned circuit goers, will accuse her/him of copying me. I’ve also noticed an increase in the level of trepidation regarding creating an original act from women/men wanting to make the transition from audience member to stage performer. Frankly, I think people are worrying too much.
When making comparisons between burlesque and other art-forms, I tend to use the music industry as my example of choice. In burlesque we see certain combinations of music, narratives and aesthetics reappearing time after time. I call these formulas for success. Such reoccurring combinations can also be spotted in the music industry:
Dance music + lyrics about a party atmosphere + rap/unchallenging melody = Floor filler
Madonna – Music
Missy Elliott – For My People
Justice – D.A.N.C.E
Acoustic sound + lyrics about love + solo singer = Love song
Celine Dion – My Heart Will Go On
Dolly Parton – I Will Always Love You
Des’ree – Kissing You
Pop music + lyrics about losing inhibitions + female singer = Pop song
Lady Gaga – Let’s Dance
Katy Perry – I Kissed a Girl
Christina Aguilera – Dirrrty
These example songs are all extremely formulaic, yet their popularity indicates that the formulas, used intelligently, remain interesting. It would be surprising to hear anyone argue that any of the above artists (or should that be their production team?) are ‘ripping off’ one another; rather they are all simply building upon base-structures that have come to be taken as given. I’d argue that it’s high time we started taking the same approach to burlesque. That is to say, there are certain burleque formulas that, owing to their contemporary popularity, I believe we ought to consider as property-of-the-art-form rather than property-of-the-performer-who-first-employed-it.
At this point in the article I originally wanted to illustrate how certain themes and act formulas have come to be commonplace in burlesque, but I’m not sure that this adequately demonstrates the subtleties of my opinion. Instead, I propose that there are certain act ideas that will spring to the fore with vigour to aspiring performers – it’s common for a piece of music with a strong theme to inspire relatively new performers to create a visual act that mirrors the narrative of the song lyrics. I’ve seen songs such as Ruth Wallis – You Gotta Have Boobs, Andre Williams – Sweet Little Pussycat, and various versions of I put a spell on you used time and time again, but rarely with complete originality (save, perhaps, Missy Malone’s fan dance to the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s version of I Put a Spell on You, which draws on the beat and timbre of the soundtrack more so than its narrative connotations). In these instances I think it’s unfair for burlesque community members to accuse new performers of copying or of conducting insufficient research prior to piecing together an act; we all know it takes a good length of time on the circuit to become familiar with names and signature acts, let alone all the other numbers that established performers have in their repertoires. So the formula for success employed in this instance would be:
Song with ‘visually inspiring’ lyrics + character reflecting lyrics = ‘Story Burlesque’
All performers, at some point, have had to put their first act together and rarely have I heard of a performer creating something entirely unique, fresh and innovative for their debut. I made my first impression on the burlesque scene with an act about a nurse, originally performed to some fast-paced psychobilly track by Mad Sin. That’s hardly going to fill a seasoned performer with enthusiasm, and it’s likely that my act was similar in execution to another act being performed by an established artiste somewhere on the globe, but my lack of originality wasn’t because I was lazy or because I thought that replicating an existing act would bring me equal success – rather because I was inexperienced and finding my feet.
“…if the burlesque community is tired of unoriginal acts then it’s our responsibility to either direct newcomers away from burned out themes, or accommodate the ‘safety zone’ aspect of these themes with regard to newcomers gaining the confidence to step on stage in the first place.”
I think that occasionally community members being outspoken with regard to the scene’s need for originality, and their concerns about performers copying each other can seem intimidating and bolshy to new performers. I’ve frequently seen online conversations steer from an excited new-comer proclaiming their ideas for an act to an experienced performer advising that the new performer rethink their ideas as performers X, Y and Z already use the theme. I’d love to see seasoned performers being more supportive! Why not twist the message into something more positive “Performers X,Y and Z use the theme already, so sadly your idea’s not completely original. However, why not watch the performers I’ve mentioned and see if you can do something new with the theme?” Why not help new performers brainstorm their ideas? Show them the potential within the art form? Some may argue that this is giving away knowledge that has taken a long time and a great deal of money to acquire, but ultimately, if the burlesque community is tired of unoriginal acts then it’s our responsibility to either direct new-comers away from burned out themes, or accommodate the ‘ safety zone’ aspect of these themes with regard to newcomers gaining the confidence to step on stage in the first place.
This said, some performers may have little care for originality and making their mark on the artform. Instead, some new-comers may prioritise fulfilling a long-term dream of performing on stage or of re-enacting what they consider to be ‘classic burlesque’. If this is their priority then fair enough, let’s not ridicule, belittle or negate them (though I acknowledge that the matter of where and when they perform is another matter entirely). I think many established performers are directing their frustrations at the wrong people when they complain of classic burlesque performers lacking originality, experience or charisma and yet getting lots of work. Arguably, these performers get work because there’s a demand for classic burlesque from pretty girls. And as this is the case, there are two options: Beat them or join them.
Don’t blame the performer for creating the audience demand, don’t whinge about the Golden Age element of burlesque’s history being favoured by contemporary audiences/bookers over burlesque’s humorous, British origins (blame contemporary society and culture for that one), don’t complain about classic showgirl-esque burlesque lacking originality because it CAN be original – look at the modern icons for examples of originality within a formula for success: Catherine D’Lish and her style of movement, Dita Von Teese and her unique costuming, Immodesty Blaize and her choice of soundtracks (from modern pieces by Barry Adamson to classical pieces, such as Dance of the Knights, by Prokofiev).
I’m also inclined to note, at this point, that from what little experience I’ve had with the American burlesque community, I’ve generally found this scene more tolerant of overlaps in themes, content and music, within reason, than the UK. I’m not sure about other parts of the globe. Without having spent any time on the circuit in the States, I really have little clue as to why this may be.
“In my opinion, the term ‘copy’ or ‘rip-off’ should only be used when a performer has replicated an inventive and original narrative twist, move, prop or costume with no credit to the original performer.”
Perhaps the problem in burlesque is that we’re in a transitional stage as the scene goes from being a small subculture to being a popular art form. With this blossom in popularity comes an influx of new content and a natural classification (from good to bad) of existing content. There’s a natural inclination for performers to compare themselves to others, to look at jobs available and who’s working them (and why!). Accompanying this is a desire to understand why one is or is not getting the work/fee/prestige/reputation they feel they deserve. With all these comparisons being made, it’s no surprise that similarities and overlaps between performers and their acts are being spotted. The key here is what we do with the knowledge of these overlaps. I propose that we avoid brandishing words like ‘copycat’ and ‘rip off’ unless there is a clear and obvious reason.
For example, I have 2 acts that use mismatched pasties – a pair of cupcakes and a ‘nipple’ and breakable heart. If another performer were to use mismatched pasties, I’d have no problem with that as I don’t deem the idea to be particularly original. Indeed, if someone else were to use mismatched cupcake pasties I’d still not accuse them of copying me, though I might question internally whether the performer is aware of my act and whether they’ve considered that other performers may feel they’ve copied me. However, if another performer replicated my ‘nipple’ and breakable heart pasties, I’d be upset. I consider that set to be unique and signatory. I’ve also experienced the inverse situation, where I’ve choreographed a fan dance only to find 2 years later that an overseas performer has been opening their fan dance with exactly the same move as me – the video of her act was uploaded to YouTube after I’d begun performing mine, but before my video was available online, so I’m sure this is simply a case of the burlesque zeitgeist embodying us both with its conventions.
Most performers seem to have the common sense to avoid replicating the signature acts of other performers (save perhaps Dita’s martini glass, which from its first incarnation followed in the wake of a tradition of showgirls in champagne glasses). I think replicating common ideas, themes, or formulas for success doesn’t make a performer a copycat. Sure, it can make someone uninspired, disengaged or lazy, but doesn’t necessarily mean they have watched someone else’s act and thought to him/herself, “I want to do THAT”.
In my opinion, the term ‘copy’ or ‘rip-off’ should only be used when a performer has replicated an inventive and original narrative twist, move, prop or costume with no credit to the original performer. In all other instances, I’d love to see seasoned performers offering support and direction to new performers, rather than brandishing cruel, spiteful words such as ‘copying’ at burlesque new-comers…
(Image of Beatrix ©2008 Cherry Bomb Rock Photography)