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31 responses to “Hairspray the Musical: Cultural politics of the 60s, now, and race”

  1. tigtog

    Part of the nostalgia, no doubt, is for an era when social change seemed both straightforward and possible.
    [snip lots] But, of course, that raises the thornier issue of how to meld all into one, or whether that is at all desirable.

    I’ve never been especially interested in seeing this show before, but these aspects of the cultural politics subtexts definitely intrigue me. Thanks for that!

  2. Katz

    Part of the nostalgia, no doubt, is for an era when social change seemed both straightforward and possible.

    Hmm. It is said that we live history forward but understand it backwards.

    Do you mean “seemed” or “seems”?

    1960s folks were as uncertain about how the future might look as anyone else. No more “seemed” “straightforward and possible” to them than it does today.

    However, if you mean “seems” then you are talking about how the 1960s has been represented by folks who had the luxury of hindsight.

    And in that case, this representation of an imagined past is at least partly a way of both trivialising and dismissing the 1960s as a model for present-day cultural upheaval: “Yeah, well, that was the 1960s. Change was easy then. But don’t try it today. And in any case look what happened. Do you really want that to happen again?”

  3. furious balancing

    I didn’t realise Hairspray was set in Baltimore, in fact I don’t know much about Hairspray at all. I visited Baltimore a couple of years ago…mostly I just intended to stop by for because I wanted to see the Museum of Outsider Art, but I decided to stay a few days. I think it’s a fascinating city, for me it was the most honest place I visited in the USA, [in spite of it’s very gentrified harbourside]. There are some wonderful museums there, and it really brought home some of the reality of the history of race relations in the USA for me. Hmm, maybe I will check out the movie sometime soon.

  4. Casey

    Here is some historical background to the musical, which memorialises a show called the Buddy Deane Show in Baltimore:

    The Buddy Deane Show aired live in Baltimore from 1957 until it was cancelled in early 1964. The show started a year after The Milt Grant Show, a Washington, D.C. teen dance show that aired seven days a week from 1956 to 1961 on WTTG-TV (Channel 5).2
    Both shows were the most popular local program in each city, and both were all-white. In the 1960s succumbing to political pressures, black teens appeared periodically on all black shows; and both shows were abruptly cancelled. 3 According to one source, “[i]n January 1964 Deane integrated his TV dance floor. WJZ, overwhelmed by an outpouring of white anger, canceled the show.”4 Maryland still prohibited marriages between whites and blacks,5 so interracial social dancing on television in the early 1960s would have
    been very controversial.

    From here: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:-IcynqylFicJ:www.law.umaryland.edu/programs/initiatives/arts/documents/hairspray_book.pdf+Bandstand+and+desegregation&cd=7&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=au&client=firefox-a&source=www.google.com.au

    I haven’t seen the musical, but I might be interrogating the politics of any re-imagined representation of history which elides the messiness of the past. However:

    But, and this is one of the things I liked about thinking about the cultural politics of Hairspray, the actuality of the dancing subjects on the stage suggests something real that subverts the narrative, and maybe, just maybe, acts as a harbinger of a *different* form of *equality*.

    I really like the possibilities in this. I take it you are referring to the multiplicity of otherness, the proliferation many identities which has fractured the dichotomy. That’s an astute observation. The reality that it did arrive in some way, in a more complex way than described in the musical and is yet to arrive in a greater way. It indeed would disturb the simplistic closures of the narrative wouldn’t it?

    Great post, Mark.

  5. Russell

    Are you sure it’s Baltimore, because I’ve been reading Anne Tyler’s novels, all set in Baltimore, all my life and I’m sure I don’t remember any Black characters in any of them.

    More seriously …. I hadn’t thought of this before, but I guess it was American blacks that raised our consciousness of our own Aboriginals. If you grew up in middle-class suburbia you almost never saw an Aboriginal, and certainly not on TV. But the American civil rights movement was everywhere, with very articulate, charismatic leaders, and very glamorous supporters. So, while I was ready to join in demos for Aboriginal land rights, I had no idea about – well, just no idea. I was sort of demonstrating for ideals rather than for the rights of people who had a definite identity or reality to me. What a strange world Australia was back then. And how powerful was that music!

  6. GregM

    Before Hairspray was Polyester, with the never forgettable Smellorama, which. sadly, never caught on.

  7. Russell

    At first I was thinking “that wasn’t the story” because I was thinking of a Julie Christie/Warren Beatty film – I had to Google to find the film was Shampoo, not Hairspray. Good film.

    Mark, I was making a kind of parallel – Tyler’s Baltimore which is all white, with 1960s Perth which was all white too (depending from where you looked.)

  8. dylwah

    “The scene in Baltimore in June 1962” that is the same year that American Graffiti was set in (Modesto, California). I never made that connection before. I can’t remember the music from Hairspray too well, but that the line from AG, “Rock and Roll’s been shit since Buddy Holly died” has a new meaning.

  9. CJ Morgan

    Of course, Baltimore was the setting of the brilliant recent TV series, “The Wire”. Maybe it depicted the dark side to Hairspray’s light..?

  10. Katz

    More seriously …. I hadn’t thought of this before, but I guess it was American blacks that raised our consciousness of our own Aboriginals. 

    See here:


    Before the Civil War, Baltimore and DC were cities of refuge for freed slaves and runaways. Baltimore was at that time the largest Afro-American city. Perth’s Aboriginal population was always vanishingly small by comparison.

  11. Tyro Rex

    Wow. Good essay Mark.

    I just want to say I’ve always loved John Water’s movies since that first time I saw “Pink Flamingoes” at the Valhalla Cinema in Glebe some point in the early 1980s.

    You do know the original version of the movie was were Ricki Lake got her big break, right? Also if you like Hairspray and Polyester (mentioned previously) you’ll definitely love Cry-Baby, starring Johnny Depp.

  12. Mercurius

    Mark — to add something (I hope) to your comments about the imaginary of the 60s presented in Hairspray, it’s worth noting that the Broadway show writer, Marc Shaiman, was born in the unfashionable, depressed and then-very-Jewish city of Newark, New Jersey, in 1959…

    Apart from that, I have nothing to offer but fanboi ravings.

    I condemn this essay for being insufficiently ebullient about the tunes! The toe-tapping, aisle-dancing, Ohrwurming tunes!

    I was devastated to arrive in NYC only to find the original Broadway show had closed its last show the previous week.

    The (remake) movie version has given us Christopher Walken dancing the tango with John Travolta in drag — possibly the finest moment in the history of cinema.

  13. Mercurius

    Oh, and I second TR @17 re: Cry-Baby.

  14. Paul Burns

    If there was a revolution in Australia in 1962 I missed it. :)

    Sounds like a very interesting show, Mark. Thought provoking post. I don’t remember 1952 as being much different from the rest of the 50s. My impression was that the revolution was a couple of years away yet.

  15. Paul Burns

    oops. 1962 not 1952.

  16. Brian

    A very interesting post, Mark.

    Paul B, as a young man in the 1960s I was thinking the same thing. In the early 60s I would have been aware of moves to integration in the US, the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring etc, but it was not until a few years later that there was a broader social/cultural movement that impinged on Australian consciousness. Immanuel Wallerstein sees 1968 as the year of a world revolution and the watershed of change.

    Working in government from 1969 was a time characterised by hope and a feeling that we could change the world.

    It’s interesting to hear about a musical based on the early beginnings.

  17. Paul Burns

    Yes, Brian, I tend to agree with that. Think we saw the berginnings of it here c. 1954, though I wouldn’t want to be precise about the date, with the music of Dylan, the Beatles etc. And certainly, at least in King’s Cross it was well under way by 1966. It came a bit later to some other parts of Oz, I gather.

  18. moz

    Gee, and I just went along and enjoyed the music. I didn’t even try to make parallels with Australia, seeing it purely as about USA racial politics. And the plot seemed thin, even for a musical. So I focussed on the singing and dancing rather than being critical at all.

    I think that like scientific revolutions, major changes in social attitudes largely come about through generational change. Which is a polite way of saying that we have to wait for the racists to die. In some ways it’s comforting that in the circles I move in (oldest members ~40) multiculturalism is not so much thought about as lived. Ditto sexual pluralism (albeit the sexual-preference minority in my house is the heterosexuals), and to some extent the arguments have moved to science-vs-mysticism and topics like polyamory (which IMO is a poor choice of topic for the anti-gay-marriage crowd, because most of the under-30 crowd just go “consenting adults. Get over it”.

  19. Fine

    John Waters is a very interesting character and the setting of Baltimore is essential for how his films work. The dagginess, the not-Hollywoodness of them all is partly what they’re about. The earliest ones were populated by Waters’ friends; the freaks, weirdos and drag queens of Baltimore.

    Now his work is a lot smoother accessible, but the freakiness is still there. His touring Australia in a live show later this year which, I’ve been told, is very funny.

  20. verity violet

    Oh Mark, thats a travesty! You havent seen the film!!!?? The stage show looks so sanitised and neat compared to the fabulousness of the John Waters film. Divine as Tracey’s ‘MOM’ brings so many more levels to the story. I couldnt imagine seeing the stage show without her! Or John…

  21. Fine

    This maybe of interest.


    A new Australian film; ‘The Sapphires’ about an Indigenous all-girl singing group who go to entertain the troops in Vietnam. Stars the wonderful Deb Mailman and directed by Wayne Blair.

    Mmm, the politics of race and lots of gorgeous ’60s frocks.