Thursday, February 5, 2009
How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love that Little Black Dress
My life in the frozen north was briefly interrupted today when I received the J. Peterman catalogue (or Owner's Manual, as it's called on the cover) in the mail. I didn't even know this catalogue was still being published. It's a hoot to read, and I'm sure the copywriters have fun writing it: the clothes, pictured in line drawings and watercolors, are advertised not as clothes, but as cultural tokens meant to evoke nostalgic associatons in the minds of upscale, literate consumers.
There is, for instance, the "Swan Pond" blouse, whose fictional narrative concerns Truman Capote musing upon a coterie of heiresses and Hemingway ex-wives at the now-defunct high-society New York restaurant La Côte Basque in 1960. There is the ensemble in which "you" (most of these descriptions are written in the second-person singular) manage to attract the groom, Lord Randolph, at an English aristocratic country wedding, and there is the "Russian Navy" shirt ("Watch the news on TV tonight. If they're wearing striped shirts like this, it's the Russian Navy. Unless you see a dark-eyed girl paddling a green boat and her boyfriend laughs and smokes and laughs and his cigarette is slightly less than one inch long . . . then it's France"). I was just about to throw it into the recycling bin when I saw a story, about a black dress, entitled "The New Music." Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be about the premiere of John Adams's Doctor Atomic.
"The San Francisco Opera House is exactly the same," the ad copy goes. "Same coffered ceiling, same sweeping balconies, but the music isn't."
"J. Peterman" then goes on to describe the opera:
Long recitations from declassified government files and the Bhagavad Gita set to trilling, clattering, pulsing sounds, atonal explosions and lyrical flights.
You made it through Parsifal, Peterman, I keeep reminding myself.
Then I notice her next to me . . . . The sight of her in this dress [the black dress pictured in the catalogue] is almost enough to persuade me to give Schönberg a second chance.
He then describes the 1940s-style organza dress, finishing with a flourish: "Kitty Oppenheimer stuck out there on that plateau in New Mexico would have killed for a chance to wear it."
I'm not quite sure how to unpack the fact that John Adams's masterful opera is being used as a foil in a catalogue to sell high-end clothing, and a negative foil at that. I suppose it's a sign of hipness to evoke the work, and another such sign not to like it. The musicologist Richard Taruskin, in this long but excellent article in The New Republic, notes the phenomenon, current since the 1960s, of the intellegentsia (though well-versed in and appreciative of the serious and avant-garde in literature, painting, and philosophy) taking a perverse pride in knowing little-to-nothing about classical music (including twentieth- and twenty-first-century art music). Art music, as J. Peterman reminds us in his catalogue, is not hip; cultural elites today vaunt their knowledge not of new art music, but of popular music from various eras, some of which they profess to like for "ironic," rather than sincere reasons; i.e., not for its merits, but for its lack of them.
The irony here is that Doctor Atomic is not an atonal work at all, and certainly nothing like Schönberg. That, and the fact that I would love to have that dress myself.