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.]

Burlesquefest 2003

Marquee Theatre,
Tempe, AZ
June 23rd, 2003

Kitty Crimson

Women taking their clothes off is, in my opinion, a fine thing, which provided hours of happy entertainment during my days in London. Now, of course, I’m a very content married man, and Chris is the only woman I really want to see divest herself – but the concept still holds nostalgic interest. Enter Burlesquefest, a travelling show which promised to put the “tease” back into striptease, with performers such as Catherine D’Lish (her real name, allegedly!) and Kitty Crimson.

There certainly seems to be a demand; the Marquee was crammed to capacity, with all seats occupied, and lines of standees down both walls. Some members of the audience were also extremely enthusiastic, to the point where we wondered if they’d perhaps just been released after fifteen years in San Quentin. Acting as MC was Kitten on the Keys, a singing, dancing compere who describes herself as a, “firkeytoodlin’ frisky feline,” not averse to taking her own clothes off. The support acts were Oracle Dance, a trio out of Denver, Colorado, plus Crimson (pic, above) and D’lish.

Devotchka!

Musical accompaniment was provided by Devotchka, a group who musical influences range from the Gypsy Kings to Quentin Tarantino, via the Russian steppes, with instruments including violin, tuba, and that thing shaped a bit like a mandolin whose name escapes me at the moment. They were initially amusing: hey, this one sounds like Hava Nagila! Unfortunately, we eventually realised all their songs sounded like Hava Nagila [save the odd-yet-cool version of Venus in Furs by the Velvet Underground], and their entertainment value went into a sharp decline. There was just so much Devotchka, at times we wondered if we had accidentally gone to one of their concerts which happened to have dancing girls, rather than a striptease show.

As for the striptease, no question that this was Performance Art, particularly when D’Lish was on stage – her props included a gigantic spider’s web, as well as an oversized champagne glass filled with soapy water (hopefully warm!), and her costumes were no less extravagant. The latter applied to all the performers; think Chris came away with an entire shopping list of wants. Crimson’s inspiration is clearly early Marilyn Monroe, and I found her acts convincing but largely derivative, without much hint of any of her own personality. Perhaps this was just in contrast to Kitten on the Keys, who refused to take anything the slightest bit seriously, least of all herself, and was the most engaging character in the show as a result.

Comedy has always been an essential ingredient of burlesque: W.C.Fields, Lennie Bruce and Bob Hope all worked in clubs. If the rest of the cast seemed to be a little po-faced at times, perhaps revelling in the post-modern irony of it all, Kitten made up for it with sheer good humour. The highlight, personally, was her tinkly lounge version of the Sex Pistol’s Anarchy in the UK, which became a sweet little ditty. [Insert obvious joke here]

I happily admit it all made for two and half entertaining hours. However, I was surprised by how unerotic I found the vast majority of the spectacle; a slight twinge when D’Lish was pouring champagne down over her body, and that was it. There are several reasons for this, even discounting my happily-married status. Firstly, but probably less importantly, it was really pretty tame – if this were a movie, it’d probably be PG-13, since the panties and pasties remained on.

Now, there’s no reason why gynaecology should have to come into play. But in the modern world, where an average hour of late-night cable contains much more nudity and sexuality than this whole show, and most of the Burlesquefest acts could trade costumes with Christina Aguislutta, a certain amount of desensitization is inevitable. What the performers seem to have forgotten is that burlesque operated on the edge of what was acceptable in society, and that society has changed, and continues to do so – perhaps in 50 years they’ll be having nostalgic lap-dancing tours.

Catherine D’Lish

Retro is cool, but there’s a good reason we don’t drive Model T’s any more, and Burlesquefest came off as possessing about as much “edge” as a low-rent Las Vegas casino show. The closest it came to subverting community norms were a few nods towards paedophilia (“I was 8 before I was 7”) – and while some may find Shirley Temple impersonations sexy, it’s a niche market. [Chris also pointed out that the performers were 100% white. Read into that what you want.]

Secondly, there seems to be an inverse-cube law at work here. No matter how elegantly you dress it up, sexuality works best when it’s up-close, personal, in your face, and moist – not thirty rows back in an auditorium seating nine hundred people. In that kind of location, no matter how enthuiastic you are, even the wildest of abandon is gonna end up spread pretty thin. By removing the intimate element, presumably as part of taking out the “sleaze”, they’ve also sanitised it, to the point where most of the acts were closer to modern dance than anything else.

Whether we attend future Burlesquefests is uncertain. It will likely be influenced by the potential Devotchka quotient, as much as anything else (a little goes quite some way!). If it was the same people performing the same acts, I’d probably be less inclined to go, since variety is the spice of, er, variety. A different selection of artistes would probably see us there though – on the other hand, I’d definitely miss that version of Anarchy in the UK