Contemplating Suicide: The Suicide Girls Burlesque

Big Fish Pub,
Tempe, AZ
January 13th, 2004

My previous experience with the world of burlesque left me largely unmoved, so the news that the Suicide Girls Burlesque tour was coming to town was something of only marginal interest. At least, until I heard those three little words that mean so much: BANNED IN PHOENIX.

Yes, America may be the land of the free, but that information didn’t appear to have percolated down to the local licensing board, who apparently threatened to close the venue down if the show went ahead. Phoenix has a strange schizophrenia in this area. Nudity is okay, alcohol is okay: the two combined are An Evil Which Must Be Stopped At All Costs. But nothing gets me more stoked than censorship: no-one has the right to tell me what I can and cannot watch. So when we found out the show had been moved to a smoke-free venue in the (allegedly, more liberal) neighbouring city of Tempe, attendance became mandatory.

A few thoughts on Suicide Girls in general. It’s a website, founded in 2001 out of Portland, which has more strip-clubs per capita than any other US city. The basic concept is the same as any other pay-per-view site: nekkid chicks. But the models here are tattooed, pierced, goth, punk, indie chicks, and the initial concept has exploded to something which claims to be as much about the community of like-minded individuals, as getting the viewer hard/wet. [One wonders how long the site would remain a going concern without the skin, however…]

I have mixed feelings about this. The idea of politically-correct pornography (“sex positive”) is contradictory; eroticism is inextricably linked to a sense of taboo-breaking, which is why we can enjoy smut and animals can’t. [Ironically, burlesque illustrates the central concept nicely.] Half the fun is that it’s not squeaky-clean and socially acceptable. Besides, what’s better than porn for pissing off religious fundamentalists? There’s also a smug sense of superiority to SG, as if its approach is somehow intrinsically “better” than everywhere else on the Internet that sells skin. In truth, while I’m all in favour of diversity, it is just another fetish: some like nurses, some nuns, and others gloomy girls dressed in black, with ripped fishnets.

The women on the site simply fit a different set of stereotypes – you’d find more coloured women at a KKK cookout than on the Suicide Girls press page – and the fact that they write poetry about themselves doesn’t make any significant difference. The illusion of accessibility is hardly anything new in porn, going back at least to the “Readers’ Wives” section in the magazines of my tender youth. [I sense I’ll be quizzed on this revelation by Chris!] Of course, after a decade of surfing, the only web content I’ve ever paid for is my fantasy baseball – unless you have very specific wants, there’s so much free ‘Net nudity, you’d be a fool to pay for it. But no matter how pretentious it may be, it’s mostly harmless fun, despite the claims to be “a contemporary lifestyle brand” on their website.

Unfortunately, “fun” is probably about the last word we can use to describe their burlesque show, which sucked on almost every conceivable level. We could start with the organisational; if you’re going to put on a public striptease show, it makes sense to check, well in advance, that all potential authorities are okay with the concept. Instead, just four days before the performance, the New Times wrote about the show without a hint of trouble – it’s very possible that this article caused the furore, and so we discovered it had been abruptly moved only on the day of the show, while trying to find out the start time. How many less-informed attendees turned up at the original location? As for the new venue, I appreciate it was late notice, but who decided to move to one half the size, with a a stage about two feet high?

Next, let’s discuss the support bands. Yes: support bands. I guess it’s part of the community thing previously mentioned, but it was clear from the audience reaction – “polite disinterest” at best – that they weren’t there to listen to crap guitar-rock like Bloom, who replaced skill with volume. Local band Peachcake opened, and were kinda amusing with song titles like I Hope We Don’t Get Exploded, and had the good sense not to stick around for long.

Then there’s the audience. While I appreciate Suicide Girls have no control over this, those measuring 6’4″ and more should have better grace than to push their way to the front; especially in a venue like this one, they acted like the moon during a solar eclipse. I was immensely pleased to see the bald, bespectacled jerk who’d crammed his way directly in front of me get reamed out by security for taking pics with his digital camera – personally, I’d like to have seen it used to give him an impromptu colonoscopy.

Finally, at around 11:15pm, after seven false starts on the music – more evidence of the level of professionalism here – the girls themselves appeared. But hang on, where was the “punk-rock soundtrack” promised in New Times? Instead, we got Shirley Bassey’s Hey Big Spender, which is about as clichd and predictable as you can imagine. Back in London, I’d seen strippers use Nine Inch Nails and the Revolting Cocks, which was far more imaginative than what we heard here. I mean, Jessica Rabbit’s song from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Please…

Making things worse, it looked like the evil repressive hand of the licensing board had reared its ugly head, even in Tempe. We’d wondered why there had been so much cutting of duct-tape going on, but when the tops came off, a sense of disappointment rippled back from the lucky few at the front who could actually see. Eventually, we realised why. Just as at the Rockbitch concert, their nipples had been concealed with tape. The show was now reduced to an MPAA rating equal to that for Pirates of the Caribbean.

Most damningly of all, what we saw (admittedly, significantly less than everything, since we were peering through the rows of heads in front – a criticism also levelled at other SG appearances on this tour) was about as erotic as watching your daughter play dress-up. Newsflash to the Suicide Girls: taking your clothes off for a web-site in no way qualifies you to be an exotic dancer. There is an art involved, and it’s entirely separate from looking morosely cute in still pictures.

The crushing banality of the performances, particularly when coupled with the crushing crowd, left us with only one alternative. Now, we don’t run away. Call it touching optimism, but be it music, sports or theatre, we have never departed before the end of any form of live entertainment, no matter how terrible it might be…

At least until that night.

I turned to Chris, and said, “You know, I really wouldn’t mind if we left.” She didn’t need to be asked twice. We squeezed our way through the maddening crowd, popped out the door like a cork leaving a bottle and headed home. Now, I suppose the show might suddenly have improved. The duct-tape might have come off. The choice of songs might have become less banal. The Biblical Rapture might have taken place, and thinned the crowd out a bit. But on the whole, it was a chance we were willing to take.

About the only plus-point I can find to the whole evening – and believe me, I’m trying – is that, at $8, it was a cheap night out. It’s possible that, at another venue, in a city with a more liberal code, and with a better audience, this could have been entertaining. As is, it was a miserable failure that has succeeded in ending any TC interest in burlesque for the foreseeable future.

There is a valuable moral to be learned here, albeit one I probably should have picked up and taken to heart, from my encounters with the forces of darkness (a.k.a. state and national censors), which have been an ongoing battle since the 1980’s. We can now add the Suicide Girls Burlesque to the list of things – Italian cannibal movies, the 2 Live Crew, and Fanny Hill – which all help prove that just because something is banned, does not necessarily mean it is actually any good

[Subsequent information from the New Times suggests the liquor board were not responsible, and that claim may have been a fabrication by the promoters. Needless to say, if true, this pisses me off even more… Though at least the NT writer also bailed early because of the utter lack of visibility.]

Why Ticketmaster Sucks

WhySucks

Ok, we’ve had enough. Largely by chance, we discovered that Henry Rollins was doing a spoken-word show in Tempe on Monday – since a cousin is visiting from Australia, we aren’t able to go to the box-office, so visited ticketmaster.com in order to pick up tickets. Four tickets at $20.75 = $83.00, right? Not by Ticketmaster’s math:

  • Face Value: 20.75
  • Building Facility Charge: 1.25
  • Convenience Charge: 6.75

Total cost = $115, including $32 in total charges, an almost 40% surcharge. And that’s not even including the $2.50 they’d charge, had I wanted to print the tickets out on my own computer – using my own paper and ink. Are they taking the piss? Apparently not. This is part of the reason why they are widely referred to as Ticketbastards.

No-one would argue that they are entitled to cover their costs and make a reasonable profit, but what they are doing goes well beyond both. It’s both ludicrous, and entirely unjustifiable, not least because the charges are arbitrary. For a Merle Haggard concert, the add-ons are $2.00 and $8.25 – that’s at exactly the same venue, so why is the “building facility” charge different? And why is it suddenly $1.50 more ‘convenient’ to buy Haggard tickets than Rollins ones? Is there some hidden expense associated with the former? No – the only difference is the face value, and hence how much money Ticketmaster can gouge out of the buyer.

Unfortunately, these days Ticketmaster are an unstoppable behemoth. Complaints about their behaviour go all the way back to at least 1994, when Pearl Jam cancelled a tour as part of their battle with the company. It serves as a nice illustration of how the company operates, and why it has become such a monster.

It started when Eddie Vedder and his mates objected to Ticketmaster adding their (strangely variable, but even back then, extortionate) fees to concert tickets, whose face value had been kept deliberately low at $18. A couple of dates in, after selling tickets through other means, they discovered that across the country, Ticketmaster had a monopoly on sales at a lot of venues, and was enforcing it aggressively. For their compliance, the venues, on their part, got what can only be described as “kickbacks”, funded by the service charges. These were sometimes as much as $500,000/year, in addition to what Ticketmaster paid them up front for the monopoly. Little wonder places have no interest in exploring other avenues.

Equally as bad, the company also had exclusive contracts with promoters, locking them in with Ticketmaster. So even at an independent venue, if the event promoter is contracted with Ticketmaster, the result’s the same. In the end, the problems proved too much for Pearl Jam to overcome, and the tour was cancelled, costing somewhere around $3m. They complained to the Justice Department, and two members, Jeff Ament and Steve Goddard, testified before a House Committee that Ticketmaster were a monopoly bent on eliminating competition. Aerosmith’s manager testified too, saying he had no choice but to use the company, even though he hated doing so.

In 1995, the Justice Department decided against investigating Ticketmaster; Pearl Jam became Ticketmaster’s bitches, and since then, things have got worse. Much worse. Ticketmaster has gobbled up competitors such as Ticketweb, to such an extent that in 2000 it was estimated that the company controlled 90% of the market, and in 2001, they sold $3.6 billion worth of tickets.

Another part of the problem is their “exclusive agreement” with the very worst of the media companies, Clear Channel, through the latter’s SFX Entertainment subsidiary. This cosy cartel of venues, promoters, and the media means the chances are slim of you hearing about any other means of getting tickets – especially if you listen to one of Clear Channel’s 1,200 radio stations, which control 60% of all rock programming in America.

[As an aside, in August 2001, Nobody In Particular Promotions sued Clear Channel charging it “used monopolistic, predatory, and anticompetitive practices to prevent NIPP and others from offering concert promotion services in that area.” The irony is, guess who owns the venue Henry Rollins is playing at – which is just down the road from where Ticketmaster started? Yep: Nobody In Particular Promotions.]

This August, String Cheese Incident were the latest to suffer. They sued Ticketmaster, frustrated because the company refused to let the band sell tickets direct to their own fans. They were unable to play in San Diego, because every appropriately-sized venue was exclusively tied up. See Pearl Jam for details, boys – the band may have changed, but Ticketmaster’s tune remains the same: “We’re in the Money”.

The company now have exclusive rights to 90% of the nation’s large arenas, and over 70% of the clubs and theatres. This pretty much allows them to charge whatever markup they want – and as the example at the top of the page shows, they take full advantage of the opportunity. It’s interesting to note that Ticketmaster get their claws in at both ends. If they sell your band’s tickets, they charge 3.5% commission on gross sales, plus a further “administrative fee” for credit/debit card fees. The latter is particular interesting, removing wholesale one potential justification for what they add to the price of a ticket.

As if gouging in this manner weren’t enough, in September the company announced plans to auction off the best tickets to the highest bidder – effectively becoming nothing more than touts, driven entirely by market forces. The worst thing is, laws against scalping are ineffective, since they apply only to the resale of tickets, not the initial purchase. Again, they’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.

Paul Allen – Owned not
one, but two companies
loathed by millions…

I’m a huge fan of the free market – but for a truly free market, competition is absolutely essential, and is conspicuously absent in this field. It’s difficult to see how Microsoft is a monopoly, but Ticketmaster isn’t – the latter deserve investigation equally as much. [Interestingly, Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, was at one point the main Ticketmaster shareholder] The arrogance, selfishness and greed they display leaves me wishing they get splintered into a thousand pieces for their dubious business practices.

Downloading may or may not be killing CDs, but the leech which is Ticketmaster drains the vitality out of live entertainment just as badly. Most people don’t have an unlimited budget, and these hefty “convenience charges” inevitably mean fewer events will be attended. Ticketmaster have certainly succeeded in making us think twice about what concerts we go to.

Feedback

Cliff Dickinson: “I just want to thank you for the article and links you have posted concerning Ticketmaster’s schemes. I only wish there was a way to warn more people of their rip-off tactics before they buy. Here’s a copy of my note to their customer service email-box. Fat chance of it getting anywhere with them…”

“I purchased two tickets to the Cher concert last night in Daytona. The start time for the concert, printed on the ticket and published on your website was 7:30 PM. We rushed to get there after work. The show did not start until 9PM. We learned from the Event Director that Cher’s contract stated 9 PM start time. We also learned that Ticketmaster recieves a commission from Centerplate for concessions. Sounds like Ticketmaster has a problem with the truth. I paid a $25 “convenience fee” to get these tickets plus a $5 fee to get to print them out on my printer, on my paper. Then to top it off Cher played for 1 hour and 18 minutes. Thus, we spent more time sitting, with no act or entertainment than the combined opening act & Cher’s concert. That’s hardly what we had in mind for a great concert. Ticketmaster is responsible for a lot of frustration for my wife and me last night. Unless, Ticketmaster resolves this matter with us, I will make it a policy in our household going forward that, if we cannot buy tickets directly from the event location or somewhere other than Ticketmaster, we will not go. I look forward to your response.

Further reading

Ticketmaster Customer Experiences

2003: Cinematic Hits and Misses

In which we finally found the answer to the question,
“What Is The Matrix?”

“Who Cares?”

Saw six of the top ten grossing movies in 2003 – as is traditional, the success of most of the rest left me shaking my head at the interests and desires of the average American cinema-goer: Bruce Almighty, Chicago, Bad Boys II, though I might catch Elf eventually. At least Bruce and Elf were original ideas, something hugely lacking this year. If we look at the top twenty films, three-quarters were sequels, remakes or adaptations. Perhaps we should let Return of the King off with a caution, even if it falls into two of those categories. 😉

Perhaps the biggest news was the way the Matrix franchise crashed and burned, from a position at the start of the year as the most-bankable thing in Hollywood. Truth be told, Revolutions isn’t that bad, but was largely scorched by the huge disappointment which was Reloaded. Despite the success of Lord of the Rings, studios might well go back to making most movies one at a time, then waiting to see whether the audience actually wants more.

There were several other cases this year where the audience stayed away: the Charlie’s Angels, Tomb Raider (left) and Fast and the Furious sequels all underperformed. But X2, Spy Kids 3-D and Scary Movie 3 did well, so sadly, we can’t proclaim the quick cash-in dead. Save X2, it was a poor year for comic-book movies: Daredevil disappointed, The Hulk collapsed after a strong opening, while LXG ranks amongst the year’s top turkeys. 2004 brings Spiderman 2, which looks a good bet, but the prospects for Hellboy are much less certain.

Outside of Hollywood, the usually-reliable Phoenix Film Festival, which produced two top ten entries in 2002, didn’t manage anything of especial note – we hope for a return to form in 2004. The main source of interest this year was Korea: while Guns & Talks was the best, My Wife is Gangster and Attack the Gas Station! are also worth watching, and animated feature Wonderful Days currently lurks in the unwatched pile. Hong Kong had a bit of a return to form, Infernal Affairs just beating Double Vision in our view, and making a worthy Oscar contender.

Here’s our top ten choices for 2003:

#10 – Infernal Affairs. The most solidly-acted movie to come out of Hong Kong in a while, thanks to Andy Lau, Anthony Wong and Tony Leung. A lot of effort is put into building tension, and it really pays off with the end result likely to leave you with a good working knowledge about the edge of your seat.

#9 – Pirates of the Caribbean. Bloated, excessive, mammoth. In other words, a perfect popcorn vehicle, whose appeal rests largely on Johnny Depp’s wonderful performance (he can collect the TC 2004 Best Actor, should he ever be in Arizona). He resurrected the previously-dead swashbuckler genre single-handed.

#8 – Synthetic Truth. Okay, I’m (heavily) biased. And Lord of the Rings it isn’t. But for $3,000, you won’t see a better hundred minutes of cinema this year – despite my performance! An early prediction: the 2018 Oscar for Best Director goes to…Zachary Yoshioka.

#7 – The Princess Blade. Possessing swordfights almost the equal of Kill Bill, courtesy of Donnie Yen’s fight choreography, this also had an excellent scenario, its futuristic setting contrasting nicely with the samurai characters. Undeniably Japanese in style, yet easily accessible to a Western audience.

#6 – Guns & Talks. Okay, this was technically released in November 2002, but is simply too good to leave off. Never has the life of a hitman been so appealing – assassins are people too, y’know. An inferior Hollywood remake is probably inevitable.

#5 – Kill Bill, Volume One. If you’d told me a Quentin Tarantino film would be in my Top 10, I’d have laughed. But this one fully deserved it, even if, in truth, it was only half a movie, with the most arterial mayhem seen on screen for a long time. Roll on Volume 2!

#4 – The Returner. Proof that the best wine comes in old bottles, this offered some lovely twists on The Terminator and The Fifth Element, with better characters than either. Add plenty of style, and a great villain too; the end product was simply highly entertaining.

#3 – The Animatrix. 2003 will not go down as a banner year for the Wachowskis; they should probably have stopped with Animatrix, which had far more depth and imagination than Reloaded and Revolutions combined. Beautifully animated, with every part leaving you wanting more, unlike the live-action films.

#2 – Finding Nemo. Walt who? If there was any doubt over who’s the #1 American animation studio, this dispels it, thanks largely to Ellen De Generes giving the best female performance of the year as Dory, the short-memoried fish with a heart of gold. Perfect animation, great characters, wonderful writing.

#1 – Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sit with jaw agape. Countless man-years and $300m in the making, with every minute and penny fully justified by this climax to the trilogy. This raises the technical bar for every other movie, while not forgetting that it’s the people (and elves, dwarves and hobbits) that count.

What are we looking forward to in 2004? Nothing pre-dominates in the way that Matrix and LotR did for 2003. Looks like more sequels are in order, but some might actually be worth our time. In no particular order: Kill Bill, Vol. 2, The Chronicles of Riddick, Van Helsing, Alien vs. Predator, Resident Evil 2, Ultraviolet (about vamps, but nothing to do with the C4 series), Constantine, The Day After Tomorrow, Blade: Trinity and The Incredibles. Some of these will suck. 🙂 And speaking of “suck”, file under “wild horses”: Shrek 2 and Scooby-Doo 2

  1. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
  2. Finding Nemo
  3. The Animatrix
  4. The Returner
  5. Kill Bill, Volume One
  6. Guns & Talks
  7. The Princess Blade
  8. Synthetic Truth
  9. Pirates of the Caribbean
  10. Infernal Affairs