Steven Shaviro

2."Build Me Up Buttercup" (3:33), David Johansen (1978)

David Johansen performed his own version of "Build Me Up Buttercup" during live shows in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I heard him sing the song a number of times. He never released a studio version of "Buttercup"; but it's included on The David Johansen Group Live CD, recorded in 1978.

This was something of a transitional period in Johansen's career. The New York Dolls, with their hilariously trashy drag get-ups and their sloppy, fuzzy, amphetamine-fueled rock 'n' roll, had broken up several years before. And Johansen had not yet settled on the suave, tuxedo-wearing, pompadour-coiffed lounge lizard persona of "Buster Poindexter," which would take him through most of the 1980s and 1990s.

In the interim, Johansen tried to make it as a (more or less) straight rock performer. This meant, among other things, trying to mainstream his sound. Over the years that I saw him perform live, his backing band gradually metamorphosed from hard-hitting Dolls sound-alikes to plodding suburban arena rockers. Of course, this merely pissed off his punk followers, and his old fans from the Dolls days, without attracting a new audience.

But I don't want to turn this episode of Johansen's career into an another insipid cautionary tale of the futility, as well as immorality, of "selling out." Rather, I see it as an indication of his versatility and volatility as a performer. Johansen is too much a chameleon, too much a wearer of masks, to ever have been an "authentic" rock 'n' roller in the first place. In this he is very unlike Johnny Thunders and his other bandmates from the Dolls. But The Dolls themselves were as much about absurdist, campy theatricality as they were about raucous, grungy sound.

Another way to put this is to say that -- although he has written or co-written a number of great songs, especially with the Dolls -- Johansen is basically a cover artist. Covers were a crucial part of the Dolls' repertoire: they ranged from Bo Diddley's scurrilous and hard rocking "Pills" to Archie Bell and The Drells' soul hit "(There's Gonna Be A) Showdown" to bizarre novelty songs like The Coasters' "Bad Detective" and The Cadets' "Stranded in the Jungle." Subsequently, in the course of his post-Dolls career, Johansen has taken on such varied genres as hard rock, the blues and r&b, salsa, calypso, and soca, and (most recently) the "roots" sounds of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.

In short, Johansen puts on one persona after another. He never appears as "himself," not even when he uses his own name. As a singer, he always inhabits musical worlds that are not "his own": and his manner of doing so questions the very notion of having a personal musical style, or of inhabiting a unique musical world. As much as Bob Dylan or DJ Spooky or any number of hip hop producers, Johansen reminds us that artistic creation always involves appropriation and sampling -- or, in less polite language, minstrelsy and theft.

In Johansen's cover of "Build Me Up Buttercup," the instrumentation is rock 'n' roll all the way. There are no horns. The band speeds up the song, turning it into a hard rock rave-up instead of smooth and sophisticated pop. These musicians play with a less swinging, more straightforwardly propulsive four-four attack than The Foundations did. Their main inspiration is the Rolling Stones, rather than Motown. Their version of "Buttercup" is too pounding and emphatic to qualify as pop. And it's too straight-on aggressive, too hard-edged and inelastic, to qualify as soul. Johansen's band has "whitened" the song.

But all this is really just a setting for the vocals. Johansen's voice is gravelly and gruff, rough rather than smooth. He growls his way through the song, with a relentless, "take-no-prisoners" urgency. His over-the-top inflections express passion and impatience -- but not desperation or loss or vulnerability. The singer is not lamenting, or making an abject plea, but issuing a fervent and imperious demand. You'd better come back to me, he is saying, and you'd better not break my heart, because I need you , right here, right now. I'm dangerous, because my feelings are out of control. And it's all about you, baby; you're the one that I want. Even when Johansen pauses for a backup chorus of "ooh-ooh-ooh"s, he projects a sense of menace: it's a suspension, a moment of waiting, that could easily explode into violence. Singing "Build Me Up Buttercup," Johansen sounds more like a demented stalker, than like the disappointed wallflower of the original song.

I'd like to say that this expressive singing, in contrast to the band's more routine thrashing, is where the emotion, the "soulfulness" of the song resides. But that would be too simple, for several reasons. For one thing, although Johansen is adapting soul music to a rock beat (the set on the Live CD also includes his versions of songs by Wilson Pickett, The Four Tops, and The Supremes), there isn't any conflict between these genres, because there isn't any ironic tension between the singer and the band. The aggressiveness of the former is perfectly backed up by the hard rocking of the latter. It would seem that the transplant from (black) r&b to (white) rock 'n' roll is a seamless and successful one.

For another thing, Johansen's reinterpretation of the lyrics closes off the disjunction between affect and signification that was so evident in The Foundations' original performance of the song. This time, meaning and feeling are fully aligned. The song does what it says, staging its extremity of desire in a manner that is so transparent, so self-sufficient, and so all-encompassing, that it leaves no room for denial or resistance. Johansen sets up a seamless narrative in which it is impossible to imagine the girl saying no.

If there's a glitch in this process -- and of course, there is always a glitch -- it's not the result of any lapses or failures, but rather a consequence of the performance's very perfection. There is something excessive and out of whack about Johansen's singing. It is too expressive. The emotion is too clear, too legible. A certain opacity is missing, a background murkiness that's endemic to passion. Johansen is such a dynamic, vivid, and expressive performer that, paradoxically, there doesn't seem to be anything behind his performance. He has nothing to express, no depths or inner feelings, since everything is fully present in the performance itself. To express means, etymologically, to squeeze something out. Johansen's performance squeezes everything out; the inner sensibility is wrung out like a dry sponge, and left for dead. Johansen gives me the uncanny sense of being an empty shell.

I got this impression even more strongly when I saw Johansen perform "Build Me Up Buttercup" live in the late 1970s. For he didn't just sing the song. He acted it out; he became it, twisting and gyrating his way across the stage, and illustrating the lyrics with exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. It was wildly overdone, but at the same time absurdly literalistic. Johansen mimicked waiting by the phone, running to the door, pleading for attention, and so on. He turned the song into a living cartoon, a campy, hyperreal spectacle filled with manic energy. The passion was there, but it was so heightened, and framed so ostentatiously, that it seemed to have been placed "in quotation marks." In this way, Johansen intensified the song's emotions, while distancing them at the same time.

If The Foundations' original rendition of "Build Me Up Buttercup" is neither quite sincere nor quite ironic, Johansen's version of the song is both. By camping things up as much as he does, he is able to have it both ways. On the one hand, the "quotation marks" of postmodern irony work to disavow the feelings expressed by the song. They say, in effect: "it's just a joke, it's just an act; of course you don't think that I am really moved by such cliched and chintzy emotional displays." But at the same time, placing these feelings in "quotation marks" is also a way of preserving and intensifying them. Isolated, and put on theatrical display, these feelings are protected from corrosive criticism. The "quotation marks" provide Johansen with an alibi; they give him permission to express the song's emotions -- no matter how corny and cheesy -- unabashed. It's only a song, after all; only entertainment. But within the song's boundaries, anything is possible. It was Johansen, singing "Build Me Up Buttercup," who first taught me that postmodern irony and heartfelt sincerity, or extreme self-consciousness and emotional intensity, were not incompatible. Given the right circumstances, they can even reinforce and amplify one another, in a positive feedback loop.

Johansen's cover of "Build Me Up Buttercup" is high camp. I've argued elsewhere that the camp sensibility was a crucial element in the formation of what is now known as postmodernity. The postmodern spirit was born when, in the 1960s and 1970s, camp crossed over from urban gay male subculture to the wider arena of pop culture and the mass media. But I wonder if Johansen's campy use of "quotation marks," in order to affirm and negate the song's emotions at once, can't also be seen as a sort of double consciousness . When W. E. B. DuBois invented this term a century ago, he was referring to the way that black people in America find themselves at once inside and outside the national consensus. They cannot escape being Americans, while at the same time they are never fully accepted as Americans. "One ever feels his two-ness, -- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body." African Americans are thereby condemned, DuBois writes, to a "sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."

Now, doesn't Johansen's singing exhibit just such a doubleness? At the same time that he enacts the emotions of "Build Me Up Buttercup," expressing them from within, he also renders them self-consciously from without, setting them off with what might well be called an amused contempt and pity. He both inhabits the world of corny pop sentiments, and establishes his distance from it. Of course, there is no true equivalence here. Johansen's double consciousness is a carefully crafted aesthetic strategy; it is not (as it is for black people) an inescapable situation that has been forced upon him. But the analogy is telling nonetheless, since it goes to the heart of how self-consciousness works in popular culture. Just as a defanged version of homosexual camp, shorn of its bitterness and edge, is crucial to straight, mainstream postmodernism, so a watered-down version of double consciousness, purged of its anguish as well as its critical awareness, may well be central to the mainstream white appropriation of black American music. Johansen both participates in, and reflects back upon, this ongoing history of appropriation.

The key figure in this history is undoubtedly Mick Jagger. Jagger, rather than Elvis, because -- as Robert Christgau puts it -- "Jagger's distance from the Afro part of his Afro-American musical heritage was especially liberating for white Americans... he betrayed no embarrassment about being white... Jagger got off on being a white person singing black songs, and he put that across." That is to say, Jagger is neither tormented by guilt, nor the least bit self-deceiving. He knows damn well that he is ripping off black music; it's just that he doesn't give a fuck. Think of "Brown Sugar": the song is explicitly about white male slave owners raping and whipping their black woman slaves, and it implicitly equates this with the Stones' own appropriation of black music. It's as if Jagger were saying: "I'm telling it like it is. I know the worst; I'm corrupt, decadent and exploitative; and so what? It's a sex thing, and it's a power thing. Just don't pretend that you aren't getting off on it too." Sometimes the best way to preempt criticism is to admit the worst, and revel in it, in advance.

Jagger's claim is that the combined energy and self-awareness of his music more than makes up for its alleged derivativeness and inauthenticity. You can see this in the demonic exuberance of his performance, fueled by anger and sneering cynicism and sexual aggression, and seasoned with a deft ironic detachment. "This dual commitment to irony and ecstasy," Christgau writes, "makes the Stones exemplary modernists." In the case of the Stones, however, that is precisely the problem. Modernism is double consciousness. But in claiming such double consciousness for himself, Jagger implicitly denies it to his African American forebears. The Stones' music can only signify as modernistically complex and self-conscious in contrast to a music that, for its part, is characterized as premodern or "primitive." Jagger's sophisticated irony is built on the racist (and false) presumption that black music is naive, simple, sincere, unproblematic, un-self-conscious, and unironic: qualities that go along with its supposed "authenticity."

All this matters to David Johansen, and to his performance of "Build Me Up Buttercup," for several reasons. In the first place, Johansen is in the same predicament as Jagger, as a white admirer and performer of black music, who must somehow negotiate his relationship to his "roots." But more, in those live gigs of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Johansen was explicitly channelling Jagger. His performance was an uncanny simulacrum of Jagger's, move for move and gesture for gesture. In short, "Mick Jagger" was the fictional character that Johansen portrayed. And he played the part with so much verve, and at the same time with such a distanced cool, as to make Jagger himself seem old skool in comparison. Johansen wasn't nearly as intense as Jagger, of course, but he came off as much more fluid, hip, and ironically self-aware. That is to say, Johansen positioned Jagger in just the same way that Jagger had positioned Chuck Berry and Sam Cooke and James Brown and all the other black performers upon whom he drew: as a vital, but hopelessly naive, source of inspiration. Call this postmodernism's revenge upon modernism, drawing double consciousness into an endless mise en abime . Johansen performs what Harold Bloom would call a metalepsis , a trope that tropes upon (and thereby undoes) a previous trope. Johansen empties out Jagger's double consciousness, by explicitly presenting it as nothing more than a theatrical shtick. He thereby discredits the very idea of musical authenticity, upon which Jagger ironically depends. Johansen's meta-irony rectifies Jagger's irony: not by restoring it to its "proper" context, of course, but by placing it within an infinite series of thefts and displacements.

Where this leaves black music is still very much open to question.

Previous Chapter
Return to Critical Beatdown Table of Contents